Published Apr 23, 2018It is difficult to understand the power of Arvo Pärt's work without first recognizing his Estonian heritage, and the politics of the former Soviet Union satellite country. At the height of the Cold War, Pärt was the first Estonian to produce 12-note music. The technique originated with the great Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, and was considered sufficiently avant-garde to land Pärt in hot water with Soviet authorities.
Fast-forward 20 years to 1980, and Pärt is moving his family out of the Soviet Union. Stopped by border police, they proceed to search his bags and find recordings of his compositions. Imagine the tension as the Soviet policemen played a piece called "Cantus." Unlike their bosses in Moscow, the border guards loved Pärt's work. His wife Nora told the The New York Times Magazine in 2010 that she saw "the power of music to transform people."
This has always been the beautiful dichotomy of Pärt. He ranks among the most significant and fearless composers of avant-garde music alive today. Throughout his career though, he has produced music that is extraordinarily listenable. The 82-year-old deserves to be remembered as one of our century's greats.
This collection of his four symphonies is in the capable hands of the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic, directed by frequent collaborator Tõnu Kaljuste. The first three were composed in 1964, 1966 and 1971 respectively; the last was written in 2008.
"Symphony No. 1 (Polyphonic)" showcases his early work with 12-note polyphony and dissonance. "Symphony No. 2" is just ten-and-a-half minutes long, but helped solidify his standing as a leading modernist.
"Symphony No. 3" came during a transitional period for the composer. The elements he's best known for now — simple harmonies, Gregorian chants and other spiritual flourishes — were beginning to show up in the work.
"Symphony No. 4 (Los Angeles)" will resonate deeply with fans of Pärt's more recent works. Nominated for a 2010 Grammy in the Best Classical Contemporary Composition category, he lost out to Michael Daugherty for his Deus Ex Machina. (ECM)