Time Travel With Arvo Pärt

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Part_Symphonies_ECM_ClassicsToday_jens-f-laurson_classical-critic

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

This first complete recording of all of Arvo Pärt’s symphonies amounts to aesthetic time travel. From his avant-garde beginnings to his deliciously enchanting tintinnabuli-style minimalism, they cover the major stages of the Estonian composer’s work. It’s great to have the symphonies of one of the most recorded contemporary composers all in one place, especially in these commendable performances by the Wroclaw Philharmonic under Tõnu Kaljuste. That said, the symphonies are neither the most distinctive nor the best of Pärt’s work.

The first two works, from 1963 and 1966, were written when Pärt still suffered from the influence of dodecaphony. The artful contrapuntal style of the First symphony, though, features whiffs of that long, subtle increase in tension that one might associate with Shostakovich and that shines through in late Pärt. The central movement of the Second symphony–Squeak! Toot! Bang!–sounds like the caricature of a “modern” composition. It ends with a busy, creepy-crawly last movement in which the central, straight-faced Tchaikovsky quote suggests the budding desire for greater harmony.

Symphonies Three and Four come after Pärt’s spiritual conversion. After not having bothered much with Soviet Realism, he then also rejected avant-garde compositional techniques. The Third symphony, his most popular to date, makes a charismatic point of the newly won melodiously religious element by quoting Gregorian chant amid all the other well-known Pärt contraptions.

Of course, even in his accessible idiom, Pärt isn’t always “easy listening”. “One will not be washed away in sonorous wafts of highly emotional music–there is no effortless epiphany here” as commentator Robert R. Reilly points out. Unfortunately, there’s not much of an epiphany of any sort in the Fourth symphony. Vast plates of sound rise and fall, like a large, calm ship on a rough sea, and not much happens in a work that Classicstoday.com critic Victor Carr Jr described as generating “a pervasive sense of gloom” (see reviews). Pärt in tintinnabuli-mode has obvious merits and fans, but the trick here is not to become your own cliché. Your answer to whether Pärt manages this successfully will make the difference between considering the Fourth symphony worthwhile listening or “half an hour of pretentious hooey”, as David Hurwitz asserted in his review of an earlier ECM release with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Tõnu Kaljuste, a friend of Pärt’s, thinks of the four works “as one single, grand symphony” and takes them attacca, running the music from one symphony into the next. It’s a miscalculation that only lessens the impression that each work leaves.

If you can skip the Fourth symphony or if you have one of the previous releases mentioned above–the DG download of the live concert of that symphony’s world-premiere, or the ECM CD, both with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic–you are better off with Paavo Järvi’s readings for the rest, the recently issued collection of which also includes a slew of additional, more worthwhile Pärt compositions.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphonies Nos. 1-3: Järvi/Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (Erato)


    Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Tõnu Kaljuste


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