MIF15: Arvo Pärt with Manchester Camerata @ Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 12 July

Live Review by Jon Davies | 15 Jul 2015

This year, Manchester International Festival has been graced by one of the most influential and perhaps under-celebrated composers of the past century. Arvo Pärt isn’t quite on the lips of many as much as his American contemporaries Philip Glass and Steve Reich; however, his music has arguably permeated through as much if not more of today’s landscape, from fellow MIFers Clint Mansell and Björk to much of post-rock and various heart-rending film scores. His influence is also noticeable outside the concert hall, with the typical classical audience tonight looking slightly grungier than usual – as is the relaxed setting within.

As with Pärt’s musical works, the programming is finely laced with religious intonations, beginning with the UK premiere of Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fàtima. A simple Psalm reminiscent of renaissance devotional music, one of the characteristic pillars of Pärt’s compositions, it settles the audience into a hushed focus. The plaintive chord cycle of Fratres, one of the composer’s most notable pieces, grows in depth as each timpani pattern breaks the swelling strings; and the whole hall has a sense of stillness and unity. The performance, skilfully directed by Gabor Takács-Nagy, is at times magisterial and solemn, maybe a surprise to those expecting the more agitative version found in There Will Be Blood. As one’s heart begins to slowly tighten, the strings fade to silence.

Stabat Mater’s introspection comes from its ever falling melodies, its text lifted from 13th-century compositions, as Mary stands at the foot of Jesus on the cross. Whereas minimalists are at times accused of musical naval gazing, there is no doubt that Pärt’s cellular technique never takes precedent over the theme, as Stabat Mater’s repetition dissolves in the drama of the choir. Past the interval, the Da pacem Domine is the final showcase of Pärt’s deft simplicity as Como cierva sedienta acts as a counterweight in its free flowing drama. For some this piece may be perhaps too conservative, and arguably overly ornamentative in comparison to the earlier programming – but fully immersed soprano Polina Pasztircsák’s enthralling performance brings the audience to its feet in a rousing reception.

In our accelerated culture where most modernist composers’ obtuse structures are near impossible to penetrate for the untrained ear, Pärt’s music is much like a guiding light, both in terms of creating blissful and moving music, and in his timeless religious devotion against the fractious manifestations of his contemporaries. As he takes the stage for his bow, the audience sustain their appreciation, with the frail Pärt cowering slightly in reverence; a mutual appreciation of presence.