I’ve become obsessed—this isn’t too strong a word—with Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, which I’m preparing for a recital with Jovanni de Pedro. I know that it’s become a bit of a cliché from being on so many movies, advertisements and so on, but every time I play it, I find something new and astounding in it.
What makes it particularly hard for me is that Pärt purposely didn’t put any dynamics, articulations or other expressive markings in there. Does this mean we should add our own? I don’t think so. One of the biggest challenges is just keeping a steady tempo of 100 to the quarter note, which is as painfully difficult to do as it is in that other famous slow cello solo, “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus” from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Even though Spiegel doesn’t have the same hard shifts and high playing as the “Louange,” I find sticking to 100 extraordinarily hard.
And yet, if you can pull it off, the effect can be exquisite. Alluding, maybe, to Bach’s C major Prelude, or the Moonlight Sonata, the repetitive broken chords in the piano part, the bell-like high Cs, the austere economy of material—Pärt’s “holy minimalism”—are mesmerizing. Trance-inducing, I would say.
I was delighted to find that my haphazard piano skills were up to the task of playing the piano part, which allowed me to sing the cello part while I played. But somehow the human voice sounded wrong here. So much of what I do as a cellist is invested in “singing” with tone and vibrato, but the natural variations of the human voice are too, well, human for this music. It’s quite a challenge not to sing on the cello, but rather to maintain as perfect an equilibrium as I can. The tone doesn’t need the warmth and humanity of the voice, but rather the same feeling of pure, miraculous, otherworldly objectivity as the piano’s harmony.
Pärt’s title alludes to the infinity of images you can see in parallel-plane mirrors. The symbolism seems obvious—we’re summoning the Infinite. Not a noisy Veni, Creator Spiritus, but something more elusive.