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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Symphony No. 1 ‘Polyphonic’ (1964) [19:15]
Symphony No. 2 (1966) [10:38]
Symphony No. 3 (1971) [20:23]
Symphony No. 4 ‘Los Angeles’ (2008) [29:10]
NFM Wrocław PO/Tõnu Kaljuste
rec. 2015/16, National Forum of Music Main Hall, Wrocław, Poland
ECM NEW SERIES 2600 [79:00]

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is best known for what he calls his tintinnabuli style, used in such works as Fratres, the Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten and a whole range of choral music which has brought his music to many people who do not share his religious faith – he is a Russian Orthodox convert – but who respond immediately to his deeply felt and moving music.

However, he took a long time to develop this idiom, and one of the interests of this disc containing all four of his symphonies is to trace his development. In his early years he started out with neo-classicism, then belonged definitely to the avant garde, adopting the serial system when such things were frowned on by the Russian rulers of Estonia. His early music was banned. Instead of making an accommodation to the approved idiom, he fell silent, studying early music and writing little. He was eventually allowed to leave Estonia and emigrated first to Vienna, then Berlin. After the Baltic states regained their independence he moved back to Estonia.

His first two symphonies belong to his serial period but are very different in character. I thought they might be little more than curiosities and was delighted to find they were a good deal more than that. The first symphony is in two movements. The first is bold and brassy with several changes of pace and some grinding discords. The second features a winding line on a solo violin. Later there is an explosion, and a pounding bass over which the woodwind make startled cries. A sinister march builds to a fragmented climax, featuring trumpet tattoos against string writhings. This work does not sound particularly serial – in fact, it sounded to me more like one of Aaron Copland’s more experimental pieces of the twenties.

The second symphony, in three very short movements, begins with staccato string fragments. More instruments join in, but the splintered texture continues over long held notes in the bass. In the second movement, ascending brass chords contrast with increasingly wild cries in the woodwind. The finale has an oscillating rhythm on the drums and contained aggression from the wind, interrupted by a thunderclap and a Tchaikovsky quotation.

The third symphony is one of only two works Pärt composed during his period of silence, from 1968 to 1976, during which he composed only this symphony and a cantata he later withdrew. It is in three movements which are played continuously. By this time Pärt had abandoned serialism and returned to tonality and even to themes based on plainsong, but rethought from the experience of having gone through modernism. This is a transitional work, in which one can hear his mature idiom emerging.

The fourth symphony did not follow until thirty-seven years later. By this time Pärt’s fame had spread, and this work was a commission from a consortium of patrons, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which gave the premiere. It is for string orchestra with harp, timpani and percussion; there are no wind instruments at all. The first three symphonies are all good works but this fourth one is something else again. It is in three movements. The first opens with a whispering sound high in the strings with occasional deep notes on the harp. Gradually the high sounds descend and a definite modal theme struggles to emerge. A faster movement begins but comes to nothing. A slow sad melody in a broken waltz rhythm follows and fades away into darkness. The second movement begins with thumping, interspersed with chordal passages and silences. The chords become more linked and the throbbing less insistent. Gradually the silences get longer. The chords become more anguished. The final statement is the most poignant. The finale begins almost traditionally with some Wagnerian chords. There is a dialogue between the strings and bells high and low. A solo violin sings a plaintive lament which gradually descends to the depths, where the basses set up a slow trudge which becomes a steady, grinding march, gradually moving upwards to the high treble. One chord on the strings, a bell sound, and the work is over.

However, such a description cannot convey the intensity of the work, the way Pärt holds the listeners in the palm of his hand and takes them on a journey whether they will or no. It is not a work for every day, but it is extraordinarily impressive. It is apparently based on an Orthodox Church Canon to the Holy Guardian Angel, the text of which is given in the sleeve-note, which accounts for its vocal character and apparently underlies many of the details.

Tõnu Kaljuste is best known as a choral conductor and has a long track record in this composer. He is also an accomplished orchestral conductor and leads committed and convincing performances. The recording is good and the sleeve-notes, in German and English, are helpful. ECM New Series have a long and honourable record with Pärt: their recording of Tabula rasa in 1984 first brought him to wider attention and they have continued to support his music with many new releases.

There is no direct rival to this disc. However, there have been various recordings of the first three symphonies, notably by different members of the Järvi family. Of the fourth, ECM themselves issued a recording in 2010, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen. This is, as one would expect, a good performance (review). However, it does not have the hypnotic power of Kaljuste. This is both a convenient and very satisfying release and it deserves every success.

Stephen Barber
 
Previous review: Dominy Clements

 




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