The destiny of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has been typical of his time. He began to compose in the 1960s, imitating avant-garde composers who worked in serial technique. In the 1970s when looking for his own style Pärt abandoned composition for a few years and undertook a serious study of medieval polyphony. This period of self-imposed silence ended in 1976 when Arvo Pärt wrote his first works in the new tintinnabulation technique (from the Latin for the ringing of bells) which he invented and the essence of which lies in striving for maximal simplicity in musical language and supporting mediate consonances. The composer himself expressively characterised this manner of composition as “running into voluntary poverty.”
Following his emigration from the Soviet Union in 1980 Arvo Pärt has written almost exclusively religious music (intended, apropos, to be performed in concert.)
The short piano miniature Alina, composed in 1975, created the Pärt we know today – a composer of rich spiritual experience and an ascetic style of composition, very refined and precise in the conveyance of the musical material. Following a performance of this work the hero of the film 24 Preludes for a Fugue remarks that the notes here are “like two neutral people that come together and depart from one another painlessly.” It is not by chance that the music Alina was used in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film Exile.
Vladimir Ryabov was born in Chelyabinsk in 1950. He trained at the Moscow Conservatoire and the Gnesins’ Institute, where he studied in the class of Aram Khachaturian. Until 1981 he taught at the Leningrad and Sverdlovsk Conservatoires. He frequently performs as a pianist both in Russia and abroad (Austria, Italy, Germany and France). In 1991 he was a prize-winner at the I International Prokofiev Composers’ Competition. He now lives in Moscow and Helsinki.
Vladimir Ryabov has written many works in various different genres: ecclesiastical, chamber instrumental, orchestral, choral and, naturally, for the piano. Ryabov’s style is unusual for contemporary music. According to the composer himself it is a “combined style of a broad spectrum” where folklore, spiritual and neo-romantic tendencies are all woven together. It is this blend, highly untypical for composers of the latter half of the 20th century, that resulted in Khachaturian saying of his student that “Vladimir Ryabov’s music is unusually beautiful. In his works there is that rare combination of philosophical depth and passionate, almost romantic emotionality.”
The cycle Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus was written by Olivier Messiaen towards the very end of the war, in 1944 following two years spent in a Nazi concentration camp as a prisoner of war.
The work was composed very quickly – between 23 March and 8 September – and it is dedicated to the French pianist Yvonne Loriod who was the first to perform the work. Loriod went on to perform it more than fifty times. The tremendous difficulties that the work poses for pianists are given away by the fact that ever since its premiere very few musicians indeed have included it in their repertoires in its entirety.
Each of the twenty pieces in the cycle has a title and separate commentary, which helps the listener understand the music and get to the core of its mystical and religious essence.
The main theme of the cycle is Christ’s birth. The composer unfolds the story in the form of twenty meditative movements. Here the cast is made up of the characters who were present at the birth of Christ (God in Three Persons – I, V and X; the Virgin Mary – IV and XI; guardian angels – XIV; shepherds, the Three Wise Men and prophets – XVI), nonmaterial concepts (height – VIII, time – IX and silence – XVII), as well as symbols that depict the beginning and end of Christ’s earthly life (the star – II and the Cross – VII). The remaining six pieces depict: God the Creator – VI, Man – III, the Word XII, Christmas – XIII, the kiss of the infant Jesus – XV and God who anoints mankind – XVIII. The immense coda that concludes the cycle (the twentieth movement) is an image of human love and thankfulness for the gift of nobility of knowledge, redemption and salvation.
Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus is an immense work, but one that is based on a strict organisational structure and inner logic. In this cycle the composer succeeded in combining wisdom and technical brilliance with a vivid sense of the beautiful that is so often forgotten in the 21st century.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations consist of an aria and thirty variations and are to be found in the fourth volume of the so-called Klavierübungen (“Piano Exercises”). The story of the creation of the series is rather unusual. It was named in honour of Goldberg, a harpsichordist who worked for Count Kaiserling, Bach’s patron; the Count was the Russian Ambassador to the Court in Dresden. It was he who succeeded in ensuring Bach received the title of Composer to the Court. Count Kaiserling suffered from insomnia and so he requested that Bach compose some pieces for piano that were different in character and Goldberg, performing them on the harpsichord, entertained the Count at night when the latter was unable to sleep. Bach carried out the request and composed a series of variations that were subsequently named after their first performer.
The theme of the Goldberg Variations is taken from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Keyboard Notebook. This is a sarabande to the motif Bist du bei mir (“If you are with me”). At the time, the piece had already been in existence for ten years before Bach decided to take it as the basis for his new cycle of variations.
Of all the composer’s works not one comes close to the modern piano style. This is particularly noticeable in the penultimate and preceding variations that an unbiased listener, even by just looking at the notes, would surmise that it was one of Beethoven’s late pieces for piano. In the manuscript of the cycle there is a remark by the composer stating that it is intended to be performed on the harpsichord with two manuals. The Goldberg Variations contain tremendous difficulties in terms of the ideas and technique and including this work in their programmes in its entirety is something that very few pianists are willing to take on.