Recording of August 1995: Pärt: Fratres

PÄRT: Fratres
Fratres for strings & percussion; Fratres for violin, strings, & percussion; Fratres for wind octet & percussion; Fratres for eight cellos; Fratres for strings; Fratres for string quartet; Fratres for cello & piano. Plus: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Summa, Festina Lente
Rudolf Werthen, I Fiamminghi (The Orchestra of Flanders)
Telarc CD-80387 (CD only). James Mallinson, prod.; Jack Renner, Tony Faulkner, engs. DDD. TT: 79:00

Arvo Pärt is perhaps the only true "minimalist." Rather than endlessly proliferating arpeggios à la John Adams, Steve Reich, or Philip Glass, Pärt founds his aesthetics of composition and performance on "a single note...beautifully played." As Pärt also says, "The complex and many-faceted only confuses me." Each of his five ECM recordings (all reviewed in these pages) embodies this ethos of complete presence in the musical moment. When executed to the levels of commitment demanded by Pärt and ECM founder/producer Manfred Eicher, the aesthetic becomes the spiritual, the musical act an act of prayer.

Still, even the most ardent Pärt aficionado might blanche at the prospect of this new Telarc CD, which contains no less than six versions of the same minimalist composition. Even among Pärt's works, Fratres is stripped-down: originally composed in 1977 for string quintet and wind quintet (versions not included here), it comprises, as Richard Rodda's notes tell us, "repetitions (eight in the original version)...of a hymn-like theme played above a continuous drone on the interval of an open fifth [and] separated by notes played as or simulating drum taps. [The repetitions] are transposed downward a minor or major third on each appearance, so that the sonority grows lower and richer as Fratres unfolds."

In other words, a bare-bones formal armature over which the musical flesh is so thinly, tautly stretched that it threatens to tear apart at the slightest strain—and never does. After listening several times through it, I found the hour's worth of this disc devoted to Fratres to be not nearly enough, and anything but tedious: the hymn theme just keeps opening up and out in long breaths, seeming to embrace more and more significance, even profundity, with each steady, studied, deliberate repetition. Not only could I listen to this disc all day—I have.

Pärt's monastic austerity is fully matched by Rudolf Werthen's direction of the members of the ensemble he founded: I Fiamminghi, The Orchestra of Flanders. The almost static pace he sets the music is unfaltering, and in strings and winds alike is heard a tonally ideal balance of the severe and the sonorous. Hats off, too, to percussionist Huub Righarts for his impeccably disciplined execution of these exercises in true microdynamics.

Speaking of percussion and dynamics: this is a Telarc recording, and there is a bass drum. Telarc has been maligned a good bit over the years by audiophiles who've forgotten just how BIG a sound a truly walloped bass-drum can make in the right hall. In Fratres, the bass drum is never struck louder than mf, more often p and pp, but it's more convincingly revealing of ambience cues and hall acoustic than any number of blockbuster sessions on this or any other label. The shuddering decay of the drum sound lasts long enough to fully map the floorplan of Belgium's Basilica of Bonne Espérance, Vellereille-les-Brayeux. Probably because of that venue's considerable reverberation, Fratres is a bit more closely miked than most Telarc recordings and thus doesn't suffer from the subtle smothering that nags at the sound of so many of the label's larger-scaled projects. Soundstaging is convincing, to say the least.

The disc is rounded out with Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Summa, and Festina Lente. These are very much companion pieces to Fratres: minimal themes explored in ineluctably unfolding variations and repetitions, meditations of haunted, detached obsession. (The single theme of Festina Lente, which means "Fast Slow," is played simultaneously at speed, half speed, and double-time.) Telarc hedges its bets by breaking up the six versions of Fratres with these shorter compositions—but this is easily remedied by programming your CD player. In fact, this disc offers ample programming opportunities: cue up the six Fratres right in a row, or in order of increasing or decreasing numbers of players, or just the versions for strings, or in ascending or descending order of playing time—or just play this generous CD (79:00!) straight through. I've tried all of these lineups, and each works in its own way—the different playing orders offer up as many delights as do the different versions of Fratres itself.

Musically and sonically, Fratres is the only disc of Arvo Pärt's music deserving of a place next to those directed by the composer himself. For a company most kindly described as "conservative" in its duplication on disc of the standard orchestral and chamber repertoires, Telarc has here outdone itself. Sonically, Fratres is as good as any recording they've made. Musically, it's the most important disc in their entire catalog—by a long shot.—Richard Lehnert