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The young Estonian pianist Tähe-Lee Liiv publishes “Diagrams”, with the complete piano works of Arvo Pärt.

Arvo Pärt’s output for piano is relatively short, but as a primary instrument, the piano has played an important role in the development of his sound world – from the time when, as a child, he began to learn to play the instrument on a rickety piano left behind in his family’s rented house, on which only the left and right-hand keys sounded and none of the centre keys. A glance at the list of works on the website of the Arvo Pärt Centre in the small town of Laulasmaa, some forty kilometres west of Tallinn, the Estonian capital, shows that only ten works are detailed expressly for solo piano, and one more, Hymn to a Great City, for two pianos. It is with this specific list of works that Tähe-Lee Liiv, one of the most dazzling young Estonian pianists, made her recording debut on 11 November – her twentieth birthday – with the release of an album entitled Diagrams, published by the Estonian Record Productions label, which she presented live that same day at the Arvo Pärt Centre.

The young pianist has received, among her numerous awards in national and international competitions, the finalist diploma and two special prizes at the 4th Tallinn International Piano Competition (2021), the first prize and two special prizes at the 9th Estonian Pianists’ Competition (2019), the second prize at the Gershwin International Music Competition in New York (2019), the first prize at the Theodor Leschetitzky Concerto Competition for Gifted Young Pianists in New York (2019), the Guido Alberto Fano Prize at the Venice Music Masters Festival (2019) or the first prize at the Città di San Donà di Piave International Piano Competition (2018).

The record strictly follows the chronological order of composition of the pieces. Arvo Pärt was still a student when he composed the first four compositions on the record: the Partita, Sonatinas Nos. 1 and 2 and Four Easy Dances, written between 1958 and 1959. It is unlikely that anyone familiar only with the modernist Pärt of the 1960s or the minimalist, tonal-mystical composer of the 1980s onwards could identify these works as his – with their neo-classical-impressionistic aesthetic, somewhere between Shostakovich and Prokofiev and Ravel – but one can nevertheless detect in them isolated elements of Renaissance music or a certain predilection for ostinato, as well as a general economy of materials. Moreover, listening to the martial atonality of much of the Partita, no one who is not an expert in his music would dare to state categorically that it is the work of the same composer who wrote the very famous Spiegel im Spiegel (so famous that it has even appeared in an episode of The Simpsons). In fact, these early works were disowned by the composer himself once he found the voice he had been looking for, that style he christened tintinnabuli.

Nor does Diagramme, the 1964 piece that gives the disc its Estonian title, have its “voice”, but which allows the performer to play with his own creativity, as it is part of Pärt’s serialist period, and is also his first aleatoric piece: the aleatoric element, or controlled chance, appears here in the rhythm and dynamics, which are decided by the performer almost throughout the entire piece. Diagramme‘s original score contains striking circles in blue, green, yellow and pink, which connect the notes of the row in motifs and phrases (and which have been taken as a reference for Liiv’s album cover design).

As for Mommy’s Kiss (from 1968, and dedicated to his mother), it forms part, together with the Four Easy Dances, of the pieces that Pärt composed for children’s theatre performances when he worked as a musician for the Estonian State Puppet Theatre. Ukuaru Waltz is a piece originally composed in 1973 for accordion and was part of the original soundtrack of the film Ukuaru by Leida Laius. The melody of this short waltz became very popular in Estonia and Pärt decided in 2010 to arrange it for piano, adding a coda. However, when we can really speak of Pärt’s music, at least as we understand it today, is Für Alina, composed in 1976. It is one of the shortest and yet most significant works in Pärt’s entire oeuvre: a composition of widely spaced tones and open intervals, with the characteristic series of triads that became the Estonian musician’s simple rule of compositional guidance. For such a famous (and deceptively simple) piece, it is possible to compare Liiv’s version with the many other well-known versions of the work, including the lengthy interpretations by Alexander Malter or the Dutch minimalist pianist Jeroen van Veen. And Liiv meets the challenge with the virtuosity that this beautiful composition requires in order to achieve the purity of sound, harmonic balance and symmetry hidden in his score.

Written a few months later, Variations for the Healing of Arinushka was composed in 1977 for the composer’s daughter Ariina, who was recovering from an appendicitis operation, and is another of Pärt’s most beautiful compositions of the last fifty years. And it is also a piece that can be compared… again in favour of Liiv, who resolves with extreme delicacy a score in which the slowness with which Michael Van Krücker plays it, or the lack of sensitivity in Marcel Worms’ version, is unnecessary.

The disc concludes with Für Anna Maria, a meticulous miniature – just a few seconds over a minute – which Pärt composed in 2006 at the request of friends for his daughter’s tenth birthday. Pärt offers two possibilities of interpretation: joyful (fröhlich) or contemplative (nachdenklich), and Liiv has succeeded in finding a middle way between the two modes. It is also worth mentioning the performance of Pari intervallo, a work from 1976, of which Pärt did not write down the instrument(s) on which he had intended to perform it, and for which he had previously worked out scores for organ or small chamber ensemble (saxophone quartet or clarinet, trombone and string orchestra) rather than for piano, trombone and string orchestra) before writing in 2008 his arrangement for piano four hands or two pianos, which is how it appears on this disc, in which Liiv is accompanied by the pianist, also Estonian, Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann, who is also Liiv’s accompanist in Hymn to a Great City (1984).