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.


Book review: Arvo Pärt in Conversation

Arvo Pärt in Conversation (Dalkey Archive Press) began as a book by Enzo Restagno that was published in 2004. Its publication coincided with the Torino-Milano music festival Settembre musica, of which Restagno was artistic director, and which in 2004 had a special focus on Pärt. In 2010 much of this book was translated into German, some new material was added, and it was published by Universal Edition. The book under review is the English edition of this text (translated by Robert Crow), and it should be noted that the title is now misleading: the first half of the English edition indeed features a long interview between Pärt and Restagno, but this has been supplemented with three two scholarly essays. Also included are two short speeches by Pärt himself.

It has to be said that content for serious readers is patchy. In the second of the essays Saale Kareda discusses the spiritual aspects of Pärt’s work. Many spiritual and religious themes are invoked, in the service of too little penetrative insight.

Kaire Maimets-Volt takes a potentially more interesting line, analysing Pärt reception through filmmakers’ use of his music. Tackling Pärt’s music through film, rather than the more obviously sanctioned paths of religious text and the tintinnabulation style could be an interesting line of approach. As a reception history of Pärt’s music in film it is well researched, and the appendix of films in which the composer’s work has been used (including films from Georgia, France, Brazil, the USA and South Korea) will surely prove invaluable to future researchers. However, I again felt that the essay fell just short of presenting a genuinely new understanding of Pärt’s music. [edit: This review was based on an advance copy of the book; it appears that the essay by Maimets-Volt did not make the final publication.]

The essay by Leopold Brauneiss is the longest and most substantial. Essentially it is a study of the evolution of Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique over 30 years, from Für Alina (1976) to Adam’s Lament (2010). This is more valuable work, and the breadth of his analysis is impressive. By narrating the increasing complexity of Pärt’s music, from the single note to chords, polyphony and finally chromaticism, he provides considerable insight into the technical range of the tintinnabuli technique.

The two acceptance speeches delivered by Pärt, on receiving the International Brücke Prize of Görlitz (2007) and the Léonie-Sonning Music Prize (2008) are short, but may contain points of interest for scholars.

The book’s most valuable contribution is the publication of a long interview between Pärt, his wife Nora and Restagno, conducted in 2003. The interview takes a more or less chronological approach, beginning with Pärt’s childhood and progressing through to Kanon Pokajanen of 1997. Restagno is prone to digressions as an interviewer, but he elicits plenty of material from the composer and this section of the book (which makes up half its length) is the most interesting to generalist reader and specialist alike. The passages regarding Estonian musical life in the 1960s, Pärt’s relationship to colleagues such as Nono and Schnittke, and the reception of Credo in 1968 are fascinating. Nevertheless, the most revealing section is undoubtedly that dealing with Pärt’s “silent years,” the period in the 1970s, shortly after Credo, when he withdrew from public composition and developed the tinntinabuli style for which he would become internationally recognised. This period was essential to Pärt’s development as a composer, but is often glossed by biographers. Here Pärt reveals in some detail what he was doing during this time, the precise nature of his exercises in monody, and the studies he was undertaking into plainsong and medieval polyphony. A valuable emotional counterpoint is provided by Nora:

You can’t imagine how important this period was, with all its pages of exercises and psalms. He didn’t know if he had found anything at all, and if he had, what it was. … I was very worried about him, and saw how much he was suffering. I knew that he would not have been able to go on living without that music, which was the real content of his life. I saw that he was about to implode, and didn’t know if he would manage to bring these labour pains to a happy conclusion.

Like many books of its type, Arvo Pärt in Conversation suffers from being too close to its subject and too credulous of their own words on their music. This is particularly true of the analytical essays, which could have afforded a more critical perspective. Other composers – Gubaidulina and Stravinsky, as well as Schnittke and Nono – are discussed in the interview with Restagno. Our understanding of Pärt’s music would surely benefit from greater examination of its interconnectedness with other currents in Western music. With its inspiration in bell tones and the prolongation of scales and tonal triads, spectral music – broadly defined – would seem like one starting point. That possibility is occasionally hinted at in the book, although only via secondary sources that refer to Pythagorean harmony (in Kareda), or the harmonic properties of bells.

The triad does indeed form the starting point of each work, and its pervasive presence yields a distinctive mixture of overtone and undertones which is highly suggestive of the sound of bells. (Philip Borg-Wheeler, disc notes to Arvo Pärt: Beatus, Virgin Classics, 1997; cited by Maimets-Volt)

Readers looking for a generalist’s introduction to Pärt’s music will still want to turn first to Paul Hillier’s well-known introduction of 1997. And for a more in-depth and scholarly approach I expect (although I have not read it) the Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, edited by Andrew Shenton will be preferred. Nevertheless, Arvo Pärt in Conversation contains enough supplementary detail, and some useful original research, to be of value to scholars not only of Pärt’s music, but also of music in the former USSR and in the later 20th century in general.

Polish minimalism redux

Image: Unist Composition no.14, by Władysław Stremiński

In a post trailing tomorrow night’s episode of Sacred Music, which focuses on Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt, Norman Lebrecht returns to a favoured assertion of his that Górecki and Pärt found their own voices “independent and largely ignorant of American minimalism”. This echoes a post Lebrecht wrote back in 2007, in which he claimed

The so-called East European Holy Mininmalism of Part and Gorecki was pretty much sui generis, rooted in counter-communist early Christian monodies, unaware of US trends.

This is a complicated assertion to make: how aware or unaware Eastern European composers were of Western trends during the 1960s is difficult to ascertain without some detailed research on the ground. When such research has been undertaken (such as Rachel Beckles Willson’s piecing together of precisely which recordings Hungarian composers had access to in the early 1960s), the discoveries can be surprising. What is known is that works of US minimalism had been performed on several occasions in the East, at festivals such as the Warsaw Autumn and, on at least one such occasion, it was a Polish group who were performing (Terry Riley’s In C in 1969). For more details (and a little introduction to the Polish artistic movement of Unism), please read my 2007 response to Lebrecht.

New Pärt perusal score published online

Like other new music bloggers I was delighted to see Universal Edition publish Arvo Pärt’s score for his new, and Fourth, Symphony, in an easily browsable online format. The piece, subtitled ‘Los Angeles’, was commissioned for the LA Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and will be performed in January. In particular I follow Daniel Wolf’s approval of UE’s decision:

This is an especially welcome move following UE’s missteps earlier this year with legal threats that temporarily disabled the International Music Score Library Project.  The future of music licencing is likely to be well in the middle ground between traditional publishing arrangements and the copyright-free utopia, so it’s nice to learn that an old institution like UE both recognizes and is agile enough to explore this.

Perusal scores are a immensely valuable for critics, performers and composers, but they’re an antiquated format for all parties. They’re expensive to produce, yet often distributed free as promotional material (certainly no publisher depends on a revenue stream from selling such scores these days). They also take up a lot of valuable shelf space: I can’t be alone in owning scores that I’ll likely never look at in earnest again, but can’t bear to throw out because, well, throwing music away seems wrong.

Online scores like the one UE have produced for Pärt seem like an excellent solution that both benefits publisher and peruser. I sincerely hope that this isn’t a one-off gesture playing off the extremely marketable confluence of Pärt, Salonen and the LA Phil that this symphony represents, but is a first step towards releasing scores of many or all new works in this way. UE’s documents storage provider comes with an RSS feed, so we can all key an eye out and see how this develops.

Holst Singers, Temple Church, 8 April 2006

The second of the Holst Singers’ extremely enjoyable concerts of Paweł Łukaszewski’s music was structured around the Polish composer’s Seven Magnificat Antiphons. These were composed between 1995 and 1999, and were designed as individual works. As Saturday’s concert showed, however, they also work well in sequence, the set moving towards the radiantly climactic seventh antiphon, O Emmanuel.

Łukaszewski’s music in these pieces falls in the main into two types – the thick, lustrous harmonies of O Radix Jesse, O Oriens and O Emmanuel – and a more energised style in, for example, O Sapientia and O Adonai. In both cases the music has an internal drive, whether it be through insistent rhythm or keep-em-guessing harmonic inventiveness, that began to set Łukaszewski apart in my mind from the conventional view of Polish choral music – a view almost entirely based on Górecki’s later works. There is much more going on in most of these short pieces than in several of Górecki’s more substantial contributions, even if the trade-off is a certain stylistic bumpiness.

Actually, although the programme included works by composers one might assume were Łukaszewski’s natural companions – Arvo Pärt and John Tavener – I came to think of his music sitting more comfortably with the older, British works on show: Holst’s The Evening Watch and Warlock’s The Full Heart, both staples of the early 20th-century British repertoire. That this became the case was unlikely a testament to the influence of British choral music on recent Polish composition, and more to do with the enduring quality of these pieces, as well as the perceptive ear of conductor Stephen Layton. Where Górecki, Pärt and Tavener may be accused of indulging a little too much in the pleasure of a single sonority, Łukaszewski prefers to partake of a richer banquet.

None of which is to detract from the Tavener (Mother of God, here I Stand and the world-famous Song for Athene) and Pärt (Nunc dimittis) that was on show. Song for Athene is well-known from its use as the recessional music at Princess Diana’s funeral, but it’s no less a corking piece for that. A prime cut of Tavener in full-on Greek Orthodox squelch. Mother of God is a little different. Extracted from the dusk-til-dawn marathon The Veil of the Temple (which the Holst Singers premièred in this venue in 2003) it marks the climactic ‘peak of intensity’ of this colossal work. In isolation it’s straightforward, verging on the bland, with few of Tavener’s trademark modal astringencies; but it is enough to make one imagine that like a glass of clear water it would be pretty bloody amazing at the end of an epic all-night Orthodox chant bender.

Pärt’s piece here, Nunc dimittis, was probably the least familiar to me, and concluded the concert with the most surprises. Written independently of the composer’s Magnificat – a characteristic example of Pärt’s tintinnabuli style – this 2001 piece sees elements of Pärt’s earlier, pre-tintinnabulation work reasserting themselves. The first stanza was built not out of crushed minor scales and arpeggios, but from sustained, isolated pitches that rolled and broke over one another in a manner similar to Solfeggio of 1964. Although the middle section sounded like the Arvo Pärt everyone knows and loves, the final section, with alternating thirds in close imitation reminded me strongly of the opening of another 1964 work, Collage über BACH. In all, a nice example of the many continuities that have underpinned Pärt’s music for more than forty years.