Estonia’s Arvo Pärt is undoubtedly one of the world’s most popular composers of concert music. Pärt’s mature style, often called “Holy Minimalism,” involves triadic harmony and stepwise melodic movement in slowly unfolding textures.
The composer is probably best known for the works composed just after he developed this style in the early 1970s, following an extended period of study of early Western music and his conversion to the Russian Orthodox faith. These pieces include 1976’s Für Alina for piano, and 1977’s Fratres for string quintet or wind quintet, Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell, and Tabula Rasa for two violins, chamber orchestra, and prepared piano.
Pärt’s four symphonies, from 1964’s First to 2008’s Fourth, trace a stylistic path through an early, eclectic style that included twelve-tone elements, neo-classicism, and more than a hint of polystylism, to the Holy Minimalism of his maturity. The symphonies are recorded together for the first time on a new ECM disc (get it from Amazon) by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic under the direction of longtime Pärt champion Tõnu Kaljuste.
Symphony No. 1 (“Polyphonic”), from 1964, is in two movements, labeled “Canons” and “Prelude and Fugue.” The polyphonic music in each movement is created using a twelve-tone row. This combination of archaic and modern techniques was common at the time, and the composer’s mastery of them is clear throughout the piece. This symphony is Pärt’s last student work, and it finds the composer working out his artistic direction.
While the First Symphony has some of the temporal sweep of the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski’s works of the same period (the differences are far greater, though), the Second Symphony, from 1966, is a model of concision. Its three movements take less time to play than the “Canons” from the First. It is more varied in sound and texture than the earlier work, flirting with polystylism, with rapid style changes and shifts in harmonic style. It is a colorful work, and my favorite of the four.
Composers face constant external stylistic pressures from market, peer, academic, and governmental sources. There are also inner compulsions, both musical and non-musical, that inform a composer’s voice and style. For Pärt, these compulsions and pressures drove him to essentially withdraw from public life from 1968 to 1976, during which time he pursued the studies of ancient music and Orthodox spirituality mentioned above.
The Third Symphony, from 1971, is the only surviving work from this period. In its stripped-down textures, tonal harmonies, and generally simpler rhythmic language, it points the way to the composer’s current style. The Symphony’s three movements each have a dramatic musical structure, with well-demarcated sections based on their clear use of tonality. It is a remarkably assured statement coming at a time of such internal upheaval for its composer.
The Fourth Symphony (“Los Angeles”), from 2008, is fully in the composer’s mature style. Though it was written in response to a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and two other organizations, the title refers not to the California city, but rather to the “Canon for the second guardian angel,” whose textual rhythms guide the rhythms of the symphony. The resulting music is serene, urgent, contemplative, and impassioned. Its three movements are written for a pared-down orchestra of harp, timpani, percussion, and strings. Extended sections of long, languid chords give way to simple melodies in even note values and occasional dramatic outbursts, especially from the timpani. Listening to the symphony is an intense, calming experience.
The performances here are uniformly outstanding. Kaljuste and the Wroclaw players are passionate advocates for Pärt’s music. The sound design shows off the composer’s assured but not flashy organization, and sounds very good at both dynamic extremes. This is an essential recording for Pärt’s many fans, and a valuable one for anyone who wants to hear how one of the era’s most important composers developed.
Stream Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies on Spotify: