Those who have been drawn to the music of Arvo Pärt through his reputation as a high priest of "holy minimalism," a reputation defined by his substantial presence in the ECM New Series catalog, might be surprised by what he was up to before he was discovered and championed by the likes of Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett. The compositions represented on his first ECM recording (Tabula Rasa) represented a shift in thinking of seismic proportions. Fortunately, the BIS recording of works composed between 1963 and 1971 performed by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Neeme Järvi (to whom his third symphony from 1971 is dedicated) is still available, at least through Amazon.com; and it reveals that, before embracing his current tonal halo, Pärt had been both industrious and imaginative about emancipating dissonances.
This CD wastes no time in introducing us to Pärt's wilder and woollier side. It begins with his 1966 cello concerto entitled "Pro et Contra." The concerto was dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich; and, while the Times Topics page for Rostropovich (on the Web site for The New York Times) suggests that he performed the premiere of this work, I have had no luck in finding a review for any performance of Pärt by Rostropovich. The opening measures of this concerto may well be a witty rejoinder to a bit of Arnold Schoenberg's own wit over his atonal practices. Schoenberg wrote a vocal canon whose text begins with the words "Tonal oder atonal." The first word is set to a major triad, after which the melodic line immediately loses its tonal bearings. In a similar spirit Pärt began his cello concerto with a full-orchestra major triad ("Pro"), after which all hell breaks loose in a noisy texture in which, almost certainly, all twelve chromatic pitches are present in equal measure ("Contra"). The experience is quite a jolt for those used to the serenity of "Fratres;" but I, for one, find it refreshingly stimulating. It is not that I do not appreciate the exposure that Pärt now gets from ECM; but I hope he is not embarrassed from his own characteristic "Sixties experience" (any more than the rest of us should be about what we did in the Sixties)! Isn't it about time that some of those early works start showing up on concert programs? They are certainly as important as other works that have been offered to inform us about our historical legacy.