By Ben Hansen
Jul 27, 2018
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Review: The Symphonies – Arvo Pärt

Recordings of Arvo Pärt’s older works are rare, as labels shun his compositions before his Berlin exile. It’s easy to understand why. Before his expulsion from the Soviet Union, his serial works reflected the contemporary vogue: often atonal, often unlistenable. During his expulsion, Pärt’s music became more marketable – developing a unique style of tintinnabuli (named for the ringing sound of bells) which was easier on untrained ears.

The Symphonies is a timeline of this stylistic evolution which begins in the twelve tones of the First and Second symphonies. These two works are brief exercises in anxiety, full of nightmarish tension and drama, and are probably the worst place any new Pärt listener could start. The transitional Symphony No. 3 is more interesting: a dense collage of diverse influences, sacred and profane, that point to the direction that his later music will take; the result of a search not yet complete. Written thirty-seven years later, his fourth and final symphony reveals the fruit of this search. Phrased by Slavonic liturgy, this composition captures the “bright sadness” the composer is celebrated for – transcendent, tintinnabulating, and burdened with deep contrition and sorrow. The Fourth is the longest, most worthwhile symphony on this recording.

The NFM Wrocław Philharmonic is led by the Grammy-award winning Tõnu Kaljuste, who has established himself as a worthy interpreter of Pärt on a superb catalogue of ECM New Series releases, including Litany, Kanon Pokajanen, and In Principio. This recording stands proudly among these gems, a just biography of a great living treasure.

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