The remarkable Estonian composer Arvo Pärt — whose spare and almost mystical music has been embraced by an audience far beyond the usual classical circles — has had a triumphant run in Washington this week. After a hugely successful concert of orchestral and choral works at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday, Pärt returned on Thursday to the Phillips Collection for a more intimate performance of his chamber music — nearly a dozen works that, despite their modest size, seemed to evoke the same aura of quiet majesty, the same sense of austere spirituality, and the same purity of expression as his large-scale music.
That’s no easy task. But as the evening unfolded — sketching an arc from the pathbreaking “Für Alina” from 1976, to the premiere of his newest work, “My Heart’s in the Highlands” — it was clear that Pärt’s music thrives on being pared to its essentials, becoming all the more powerful for it. Pärt is often labeled (by admirers and detractors alike) as a “holy minimalist,” but it’s an apt title. In “Für Alina,” for example, he built a sense of limitless, light-filled space with only the simplest of musical materials, and in every work on the program he seemed to find a universe in even the smallest grain of musical sand.
That held true throughout the evening, from the tender “Variations for the Healing of Arinushka” (in a deeply felt reading by pianist Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann) to the radiant “Vater unser,” sung by alto Iris Oja. There were a few familiar works, including “Spiegel im Spiegel” (now so iconic it’s even been quoted in “The Simpsons”) and “Fratres” (heard here for violin and piano, in contrast to the orchestral version at the Kennedy Center), but less-familiar pieces such as “Mozart-Adagio” — a stunning arrangement of the second movement of Mozart’s piano sonata in F Major, K. 280 — and the relatively dark and dissonant “Es sang vor langen jahren,” showed off aspects of Pärt’s musical personality that only deepened the interest of his music.
Brookes is a freelance writer.