Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Each a world unto itself: Arvo Pärt The Symphonies

Arvo Pärt The Symphonies - ECM New series
Arvo Pärt The Symphonies; NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic, Tonu Kaljuste; ECM New Series
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Spanning over 40 years, Arvo Pärt's symphonies enable us to explore the contexts of his better known music

The symphony is a not a form which one immediately associates with the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Yet on this disc from Tonu Kaljuste and the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic on ECM New Series we have Arvo Pärt's four symphonies which stretch across his entire output, Symphony No. 1 'Polyphonic' (1966), Symphony No. 2 (1966), Symphony No. 3 (1971) and Symphony No. 4 'Los Angeles' (2008). Wolfgang Sandner's booklet essay about the symphonies includes an illuminating post-script, 'Arvo Pärt maintains that each of his symphonies is a world unto itself and points in a different direction. A compass is necessary to determine that direction'.

Pärt's first symphony was written in 1963 and came at the end of his studies with Heino Eiler (to whom the symphony is dedicated) at the State Conservatory in Tallinn. It is a complex 12-tone work, in two movement which use forms which hark back, Canon, Prelude & Fugue. It is a striking and rather dense work which hints at roads not taken, full of influences on the young composer.  The second symphony came three years later, this time three short, concise movements. Here 12-tone techniques are combined with improvisation and aleatoric passages, to create a remarkably different sound world.

The third symphony comes at a fascinating period in Pärt's development.
The time from 1968 to 1976 was an important one for Pärt, a period of substantial silence when he re-aligned his technique, moving from the dodecaphonic modernism of his early pieces to the tintinabuli style for which he is now best known. The third symphony represents a step on the way, it leaves behind the dodecaphonic and takes on board Gregorian chant and medieval music. We can hear the way Pärt reduces and simplifies textures, a process which becomes notable in his tintinabuli style, and uses motivic cells as the basis of the music.

The fourth symphony represents a step change from the other three, between them lie the major works of Pärt's tintinabuli style.

Written for string orchestra, harp, timpani and percussion, the symphony was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Canberra International Music Festival and Sydney Conservatorium. It was premiered in 2009 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The symphony owes its name not so much to the city as to the Canon of the Guardian Angel. It is a concentrated and spare work. Pärt's techniques, familiar from his choral music, create striking textures and emotions when applied to the orchestra. It is not necessarily a comfortable piece, there seems to be a disturbing undertow to the music.

In the three early symphonies we can hear myriad influences, some of them obvious such as Shostakovich and the Soviet school of composers, but some less so. I am not sure that Michael Tippett could be an influence, but certainly I heard echoes of Tippett in this music. The final symphony is a remarkable working through of Pärt's ideas and emotional commitment, applied to orchestral music.

Tonu Kaljuste  draws strong performances from the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic, and the orchestra moves brilliantly from the twelve-tone complexity of the early music to the deceptive simplicity of the later.

Whilst the first three symphonies are available in a recording from Neeme Järvi and Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on BIS, and the fourth symphony was recorded by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on ECM, this disc seems to be the first time that all four works are available on a single disc. As such, this disc is essential listening for all lovers of Pärt's music. It is fatal to consider Pärt's best known works in isolation and this fine disc enables us to explore the context.


Arvo Pärt (born 1935) - Symphony No. 1 (Polyphonic)
Arvo Pärt - Symphony No. 2
Arvo Pärt.- Symphony No. 3
Arvo Pärt.- Symphony No. 4
NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic
Tonu Kaljuste (conductor)
ECM New Series  4816802 1CD [79:00]
Recorded August 2016, October 2015, Main Hall of the National Forum of Music, Wroclaw.

Available from Amazon.


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  • Notable debuts & a veteran director: Die Entführung aus dem Serail from the Grange Festival - opera review
  • Vivid drama: Handel's Agrippina at The Grange Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Rip-roaring fun: Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up! (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Debut: Soprano Chen Reiss sings her first staged Zerlina for her Covent Garden debut  - interview
  • Powerfully uplifting: Bach's Mass in B minor from the Dunedin Consort (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Brilliant ensemble: Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate from Opera North (★★★★½) - music theatre review
  • ‘A well-regulated church music’ - John Eliot Gardiner at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Humanity & warmth - Solomon's Knot at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican  (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo (★★★★★) - CD review
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