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Arvo Pärt 

Alina (ECM New Series)

One of this Estonian composer's most austere recordings, Alina is an unusually beautiful, strikingly resonant meditation on sonics, meditation, improvisation, distillation, and emotion. Symmetrical, reflective, and refractive, it consists of five long pieces: "Spiegel im Spiegel," done twice by Vladimir Spivakov on violin with Sergei Bezrodny on piano and once with Dietmar Schwalke on bass and Alexander Malter on piano, and "Für Alina," done twice by Malter. "Spiegel im Spiegel" means "mirror in mirror," so Pärt's positioning of that piece at the front, in the middle, and at the back of this recording, with alternates of "Alina" between the first and third and third and fifth tracks, gives its title a meaning that reflects the triadic harmonies that inform this whole, exquisitely holistic CD. Alina is resolutely anti-flashy, and all the musicians (three Russians and one German) are clearly masters of their instruments.

One wonders what the notation on this album is like; the way it sounds, particularly the "Alina" tracks, the music would be easy to notate. But the story is in the telling, not the plot. What is so challenging about its performance is the silence at its core, the way the musicians listen to each other. "Spiegel im Spiegel" has been recorded before, but this is its debut by Spivakov, the great Russian violinist to whom it is dedicated. The versions at the front and back are similar, but their dynamics and harmonic variation differ just enough for them to be distinct while commenting on one another. And the cello-based version at the center gives "Spiegel im Spiegel" yet another, more brooding dimension.

When it was written in 1976, "Für Alina" was barely two minutes in length, to be played in a state of mind that is "calm, exalted, listening to one's inner self." That certainly is true for Malter, who, blending exaltation and improvisation, spins out this velvet cathedral of a tune to more than 10 minutes, each performance subtly different from the other. Written for a young Estonian girl on her own in London, "Für Alina" announces Pärt's prismatic approach to composition. What may be most valuable about Alina is the way it demands attention, forcing the listener to engage and reflect -- if only in order to get in touch with his or her innermost self. Striking such profound emotional chords, which force the listener to stop, makes this one of the most memorable works in Pärt's very memorable canon. It breaks through the white noise with beauty.

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