Music

All Four of Arvo Pärt's Symphonies Are Brought Together to Show Us a Fascinating Journey

Evan Sawdey
Photo: Roberto Masotti / Courtesy of ECM Records

Arvo Pärt's symphonies have sometimes been dismissed as too bracing and academic to be enjoyed on a basic appreciative level. This new set from ECM seeks to prove otherwise.

The Symphonies
Arvo Pärt

ECM New Series

20 April 2018

If there's one legitimate descriptor that can be used to sum up Arvo Pärt's lifetime of compositions, it's that he is not a sentimentalist.

For a man known for both his modern minimalist works as well as his profoundly spiritual pieces, Pärt tends to step away from anything resembling saccharine, his compositions laced with minor keys, striking dynamics, and a fondness for dissonance, which in the 1960s especially placed him at odds with his contemporaries. Although his choral works overflowed with emotion, his standalone compositions -- and especially his symphonies -- were bracing. It's not that Pärt was inaccessible so much as he was mature enough a composer to defy his audience expectations time and time again.

Pärt's first symphony (dubbed "Polyphonic") was released in 1963 and took no prisoners: the blaring parade of horns at the start announced that this is a piece that would challenge listeners, with instruments clustered together in sharp sections with some transitions proving to be more appealing than others. Some view Pärt's first two symphonies as works better treated as scholarly studies than presentable listens, but each part serves as an important piece in Pärt's story, doubly so now that all four of his symphonies are grouped into a single set.

Conducted by Pärt's friend and fellow Estonian Tõnu Kaljuste, The Symphonies is a brand new recording of all four of Pärt's symphonies in one place, allowing Kaljuste to put everything under one roof after ECM released a live take on the then-new "Symphony No. 4 'Los Angeles'" back in 2010. Due to it being performed live, there was a surprising amount of background noise in the recording, leaving some listeners and critics wanting. Interestingly, under Kaljuste's care, this new 2018 release shaves time off the fourth symphony considerably, with the first movement trimming off a full three minutes. It's for this reason that The Symphonies proves to be a dynamic release, as the clarity of production leaves all four symphonies open and exposed, the listener appreciating the music on its own terms.

Although many would consider "Polyphonic" to be challenging, Pärt very much continued in that same spirit for 1966's "Symphony No. 2". While many often point to Pärt's living contemporaries to make appropriate comparisons, one can actually hear a lot of the bones in "Symphony No. 2" in the tone poems of Arnold Bax, a turn-of-the-century composer who had a fondness for sectional groupins in the same way Pärt did at this time, although Bax's works had a certain lyricism that Pärt's first two symphonies deliberately stayed away from. While these two works in tandem breed a lot of melodic chaos, "Symphony No. 2" manages to fit all three of its movements into the running time of "Polyphonic"'s first alone.

Yet before being dismissed as too avant-garde, "Symphony No. 3", unleashed in 1971, was a striking about-face for Pärt. Released during a creative exile that he took upon himself, "Symphony No. 3" flirts with modernity, dropping the chaos of the first two symphonies in favor of something much more streamlined. There are echoes of Shostakovich to be sure, but without the warmth of the choirs that imbue so many of his religious-themed works, "Symphony No. 3" comes off as bold, brave, and even (at times) cinematic. Its movements reveal flows and patterns, brooding at times but purposeful, with the strings having time to stretch out and establish moods instead of feeling rushed, hurried, or panicked.

And although 40-plus years separates their creation, "Symphony No. 4" -- dubbed "Los Angeles" due to it being a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association -- feels very much like a kindred cousin of its predecessor, retaining the timpani but keeping the strings far more front and center, at times even relying on string solos to help establish the ominous, vaguely mystical tone. Even as the strings hit deliberately atonal repeating notes near the end of the third movement, their placement is deliberate, establishing a sense of drama but not tipping over into unease, enticing and hypnotizing the listener while not overstaying its welcome.

As with any composer, one can view each and every symphony as its own standalone piece of work, but this collection really highlights how Pärt's symphonography can be divided int a surprisingly even fashion. It's almost as if each symphony has its own counterpoint, "No. 2" cutting down on the indulgences of "No. 1" while the relaxed-yet-deliberate "No. 4" feels indebted to the tones and themes set up in "No. 3". Taken together, this is a challenging yet enjoyable package, one that might be colder than what Pärt fans would expect from one his choral pieces, but not so intellectual as to be treated as a merely academic listening experience. Pärt may not have allowed his symphonies to be peaceful, but he did treat them with a great deal of craft and love, and we're just lucky that a collaborator like Kaljuste was able to find the humanity in them and bring it all to life.

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