Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies (ECM)

Arvo Pärt’s symphonies are something of an anomaly in his output. Traditionally the repository for a composer’s most significant, substantial statements, for Pärt the symphony has been a place of transition and uncertainty.

He has written four: in 1963, when he was a newly graduated 28-year-old; in 1966; in 1971 and in 2008. Hitherto, I’ve only been a particular admirer of the Second; and then as much because of its schmaltzy Tchaikovsky-quoting ending as anything else. But now all four can be heard together for the first time on this ECM recording, played by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonie and conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste. Has my view changed?

Let’s start with the First, subtitled ‘Polyphonic’ and dedicated to Pärt’s teacher at the State Conservatory in Tallinn, Heino Eller. By the time of its completion, Pärt had already achieved minor success for himself as the composer of Estonia’s first piece of serial music, the orchestral Nekrolog of 1960. He continued to experiment with systematic methods in the minimalistic 12-note astrolab Perpetuum mobile and the choral Solfeggio, its white-note counterpart. Both replace the fragmentarism typical of contemporary serial music with timbral continuities and resonant textures. The First Symphony is a continuation of these attempts to marry avant-garde techniques to older aesthetic or structural frameworks, its two movements setting out in Baroque style a dodecaphonic ‘Canon’ and ‘Prelude and Fugue’. Nevertheless, it has none of the premonitory quality of either Perpetuum mobile or Solfeggio. Instead, it does feel very much a product of its time. Kaljuste’s version is also very much cleaner – something like more respectful – than Neeme Järvi’s version with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on BIS. As a result it sounds positively tame in comparison; Järvi definitely accentuates the work’s weirdness. There appears to be an attempt here to canonise the piece, flattening its bizarre contours and homogenising its symphonic argument (such as it is). I’m not sure this is to its advantage.

The Second is no less strange a work, but at least at this stage – the second half of the 1960s – Pärt was beginning to get a sense of what he was about as a composer. At least for now. The period from around 1964 to 1968 is often characterised as one in which Pärt was struggling to reconcile competing instincts within his work, yet it is also the time when – for me at least – he produced some of his most enduringly interesting (and, let’s be honest, peculiar) works, among them Collage sur BACH (1964), the cello concerto Pro et contra (1966) and his first authentic masterpiece, Credo (1968). In the midst of this profusion of oddities, each one as vivid a trace of compositional struggle as you could want, comes the Second Symphony. It begins with dry pizzicato and the squeaking of mouthpieces before moving through a series of aleatoric tableaux that Pärt’s Polish contemporary Lutosławski could never have dreamed of, and ending, apparently out of nowhere, with that quotation from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. Again, Kaljuste is more reserved than Järvi, but on this occasion I think the work has enough inherent drama to warrant the emphasis on long-range argument over local contrasts.

The Third was composed during the famous years of near-silence in which Pärt reconstructed his entire compositional method from scratch. It really is a transitional work, a preliminary essay in using medieval techniques and styles within a contemporary context. If Pärt hadn’t emerged successfully with his tinntinabuli style a few years later, at the end of his silence, I don’t know if we would be paying much attention to his Third Symphony at all. Much of its interest is historical; the music itself is pretty lightweight. That said, I like having Kaljuste’s version, which well balances its various different directions and makes a reasonably convincing case for it.

Then, 37 years later, we come to the Fourth – itself already recorded for ECM by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I don’t know that version, only the concert recording by Salonen and the LA Phil on DG.

By 2008, Pärt was long-established as one of the world’s most well-known and recognisable composers. His Fourth Symphony – dedicated to the then-imprisoned (now exiled) oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky – does little to shake that picture, its three movements dwelling on the contemplative, lamenting, side of Pärt’s style before a Deciso coda adds a concluding tone of urgency. It is, as one would expect from this composer, a very beautiful, very moving work. But it is also not all that distinctive. Pärt in 2008 has few surprises up his sleeve, and not enough to entirely account for his return to the symphony after such a long time. There is not, for example, the same sense you get with Beethoven 3 or Schubert 9 that here is a composer using the orchestra to arrive somewhere. Pärt has already been here or hereabouts for some time. It is, then, the fourth episode in a series that, while it contains some frequently startling and remarkable music, has only partially explained its existence.

At least, that is, according to the terms of the classical symphony. Having all four of Pärt’s symphonies on one disc like this might give the impression of a collected body of work, a series of grand statements within a single genre, expressed with increasing force and coherence. But Pärt’s attitude to the symphony, it now seems to me, has held little truck with the classical view. He certainly wasn’t looking, Brahms-like, over his shoulder when he wrote his First; nor was he planning his legacy, Schubert-like, when he wrote his Second or Third. Only the Fourth fits a conventional mould, and then it is the prosaic one of ‘well-known composer commissioned by well-funded orchestra’. The first three, though – and particularly the Second, appear to dissolve the classical symphony orchestra, deconstruct it, put its entire being into question, in a way that would come to be echoed in symphonic works across the Soviet bloc, from Poland to Armenia.

So, there are recordings of at least two of these symphonies that I prefer. But the project of Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies is a revealing one. I’m glad ECM have done it.

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2 thoughts on “Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies (ECM)

  1. I was surprised to even see this announced by ECM. In recent years Pärt has, in spite of allowing the 1960s pieces to remain in his catalogue, been downplaying this part of his career. Discussion of them and performances of them is conspicuously lacking from academic conferences or concert series that Pärt himself is closely involved in, and I had hitherto assumed that ECM hadn’t recorded these pieces because Pärt discouraged Manfred Eicher from doing so. On one hand it is nice that we get ECM recordings of this period of his career, but at the same time I find foreboding your review that says Kaljuste flattens and homogenizes the work. Do you get the feeling that this was an intentional decision by ECM to make this release fit better, for the non-modernism-friendly recording-buying public, with its many CDs of tintinnabuli recordings?

  2. Re: “recorded for ECM by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I don’t know that version, only the concert recording by Salonen and the LA Phil on DG” > The recording of Arvo Pärt’s “Symphony No. 4 Los Angeles” by the LA Phil Esa-Pekka Salonen recorded in January 2009 released as an online download album in the DG Concerts series by Deutsche Grammophon in September 2009 is actually the same recording as the version released later on CD in August 2010 by ECM Records.

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