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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 Philharmonic/Tõnu Kaljuste
rec. 2015/16, Main Hall of the National Forum of Music, Wrocław
ECM NEW SERIES 2600 [79:26]

I’ve been sparring with this CD for almost a month now, but with a day off for Pentecost here in the Netherlands I no longer have an excuse for tackling it head on. Arvo Pärt’s symphonies are both an integral thread to his career running from his student days to a composer at the pinnacle of success, as well as being arguably something of a collection of outliers, falling somewhere between the cracks in a catalogue rich in profound vocal works and sublimely crafted chamber music.

This, at least, may be our perception of these symphonies, but in collecting them together it would appear a re-appraisal is in order. Conductor Tõnu Kaljuste considers them “as if they were a single grand symphony. I perceive Arvo Pärt’s creations as a biographical narrative, and hope that with the sound of the entirety of the music on this album we can refresh our memory of Pärt’s journey. It began with an entry into the neo-classical and serialist world, moved on with a composition that incorporated the use of collage, continued under the influence of early sacred music and - with the fourth symphony - arrived at a confession-like music, with a sound world supported by prayer, penitence and suffering.”

Returning to the first three symphonies after many years, there does appear to have been a process of maturing – either in how they are performed here or in myself – that has a reassuring effect on the way they are perceived in this new recording. The Symphony No. 1 (“Polyphonic”) was written in 1963 while Pärt was still a student of Heino Eller, and it inhabits the avant-garde, atonal world of its period. There is however an expressive underpinning to this work that Kaljuste manages to bring further to the fore than I had previously experienced, adding a Bernstein swagger to the pizzicato of the Prelude & Fugue of the second movement, and delivering the dramatic gestures with a musical refinement that elevates them beyond youthful bombast. Suspend your expectations of the elder Arvo Pärt, and you will find this to be an intriguing exploration of orchestral sonority with its own elements of minimalism with shades of Shostakovich here and there, and certainly capable of generating an exhilarating experience.

The whiff of Polish aleatory you might have detected in fragments of the First Symphony is stronger in the opening textures of the Second. Wolfgang Sandner in his booklet notes sums this up as “a work of drastic brevity and striking concision in three untitled movements.” Pärt himself referred to it as a ‘collage symphony’, and with its unexpected consonances and anti-heroic Tchaikovsky quote contrasting acutely with front-foot dramatic theatricality, this is a piece that fits in with works of this period in Pärt’s evolution, but “it gives us a hint that something different must arrive to avoid the cul-de-sac that the increasingly sceptical composer already descried in the ivory tower of the avant-garde.”

The Third Symphony emerged during that notable period of silence during which Pärt wrestled with his artistic soul and converted to the Russian Orthodox faith. The use of Gregorian chant and medieval music is clear at the outset of this work, with open intervals and plainchant melodic shapes forming the basis for music that ultimately still reaches out for the dramatic to achieve its impact. Stillness and sound emerging from silence has yet to come, but you can sense the power Pärt is finding in the resource of music history, and in the essential value of relatively simple means. The variations he makes on these resources has bags of emotional range at climactic moments, as well as generating considerable excitement. Where the music thins and settles into sustained moods there is however a feel of transition rather than permanence, of pastoral relief rather than hard-won originality – Pärt using his medieval spirit guide but having yet to find that distinctive voice that makes his later music so distinctively identifiable as his own.

With the Symphony No. 4 (“Los Angeles”) written in 2008 we are instantly in Arvo Pärt’s recognisable late style. There are strong connections with vocal music, the character of the work derived from the ‘Canton for the sacred guardian angel’ – the text of which is included in the booklet – rather than the West Coast city with which we more readily associate the symphony’s subtitle. Scored for strings, harp, timpani and percussion, this is the only one of these works I have heard in concert, and to my surprise was the one out of the four that made me the most uneasy. With its “accents, pitches, stresses and syllabification” this is a symphony which requires that ‘compass’ that Pärt recommends for listeners in determining its direction. I am of course still learning in this department, but for me this always seemed to be a work that pulls in more than one direction, resolving its nature conclusively in neither. There are of course sublimely beautiful sections such as the end of the second movement, and the whole thing is of course essence-of-Pärt and therefore a sublime creation almost by default, but for me in comparison to other masterpieces its atmosphere of circuitous introversion initially had the effect of something not as ‘on the boil’ or as crystal-focussed in intent or results as one could have hoped for. This is very much that “sound world supported by prayer, penitence and suffering” however, and once again you have to suspend expectations of a ‘conventional’ symphony, whatever that might be these days. This is poetic confiding on a one-to-one basis rather than concert music for grand halls accustomed to rousing climaxes. Read the texts while experiencing the music, and further understanding and appreciation will come in time.

You will find Pärt’s symphonies scattered here and there in the CD catalogues, and there is even a good performance - the première in fact - of the Fourth Symphony on the ECM label with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (review). For a long time the most comprehensive collection was from way back in 1989, with the first three symphonies performed by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by fellow Estonian and dedicatee of the Third Symphony Neeme Järvi on the BIS label. These are still very vibrant and expertly directed performances, recorded a little closer and harder-etched than this warmer ECM perspective, but in any case I can’t imagine anyone not wanting all four symphonies on a single disc given the choice.

Given the close association between composer, conductor and record label, these excellent recordings can be taken as being as close to definitive as one can imagine. No Arvo Pärt collection will be complete without this release – be brave, dive in and make your own discoveries.

Dominy Clements



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