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A disciplined plea for peace – and quiet – from composer Arvo Pärt

The new album of music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is a warm blanket of comfort in troubled times.
Luciano Rossetti
/
ECM Records
The new album of music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is a warm blanket of comfort in troubled times.

The new album of music by Arvo Pärt, Tractus, seems to put an arm around you and whisper, "In troubled times, music can help." Known for his serene, slow-moving music, the 88-year-old Estonian composer has attracted a legion of fans far beyond classical borderlines who love his chilled-out sound, including Björk, Michael Stipe and Keanu Reeves.

The low-pitched drones, pinging bells and blossoming voices that populate the sacred choral and instrumental works on Tractus tend to lower my blood pressure. The music allows room to breathe deeply.

Pärt routinely gets the nod as being the most performed living composer. And in our ever violent, confounding world, we need his music now more than ever.

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The album opener, Littlemore Tractus, with text from a 19th century theologian, is a prayer for support and peace at the end of a frenzied day — or perhaps at the end of life itself. Its gentle, timeless vibe sets the tone for an entire album of comforting music. Religious or not, you can feel the effects. In the 7th of the Greater Antiphons, slowly pulsing strings envelope you like a warm blanket.

Pärt keenly understands that less is often more. In 2014, he told me that silence is like fertile soil, awaiting our creative acts, our seeds. But we must recognize its power. "Silence must be approached with a feeling of awe," he cautioned. You get that sense of awe in a short but spacious piece like Sequentia, music originally composed for a theatre collaboration with stage director Robert Wilson. Opening with a tinkling bell and mere slivers of strings, the piece respires unhurriedly, pausing frequently to drink in the silences.

In the middle of Tractus lies a potent parable. L'abbé Agathon, for soprano and string orchestra, tells the ancient story of the 4th century abbot Agathon, of Egypt, who carries an angel disguised as a leper on his back into town. Wheezy strings with a lumbering stride propel the narrative as soprano Maria Listra adroitly delivers both sides of the dialog. At the end, her notes rise dramatically into the stratosphere on the phrase "For the leper was an angel of the lord, come to test him." The message is clear: We must help those in need. Pärt's music, in its own way, does the same thing.

Most of Tractus is tranquil and pleasing to the ear, but contradictions abound, notably in the piece titled These Words ... in which there are none. This purely instrumental work is inspired by a text, a prayer for stability. And yet the music sounds precarious, as a bass drum pounds and dissonant strings thunder like a pipe organ. In Cantique des degres, with its promise of protection, based on Psalm 121, Pärt's music lifts boldly into the sky, backed by a soaring chorus and brass fanfares.

Conductor Tõnu Kaljuste leads these tailor-made performances with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, the same forces he's gathered for Pärt's music over three decades. He chooses to close the album with music that sounds like a lullaby – a lyrical, gentle plea for the basics: bread for our table, safety, and the ability to forgive and be forgiven.

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Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.