Last Friday evening’s Prom concert brought to the UK Arvo Pärt‘s first symphony in almost four decades; his fourth, subtitled (with both geographical and theological connotations) ‘Los Angeles’.
However, before Pärt’s work—in an imaginative, even provocative bit of concert programming—came a short work by the relatively obscure Russian composer Alexander Molosov: The Foundry. More boisterous than bombastic, Molosov’s work is a soaring paean to industry, not merely praising but actually personifying the relentless energy and force of contemporary machinery. The pace isn’t particularly quick, but the sheer power expressed in the music is rather daunting. Molosov’s orchestral writing is bold and exhilarating, the brass writing in particular (especially the eight horns, 2’05” into the recording) perhaps laying down the groundwork for the kind of material John Williams would compose in his film scores 50 years later. Its quality makes it all the more tragic that the remaining portions of Molosov’s ballet suite Steel (of which The Foundry was the opening movement) are lost. The conclusion of the piece brought to mind a portion of John Ruskin i read the other day (in ‘The Nature of Gothic’), where he writes of how one must “be satisfied to endure with patience the recurrence of the great masses of sound or form” and “bear patiently the infliction of the monotony for some moments, in order to feel the full refreshment of the change”; the conclusion of The Foundry feels almost as though Molosov’s ideas have left him, the music oscillating round and round and on and on, incessantly—only for the monotony to be thrilling broken in the work’s final flourish.
Quite what an audience prepared for Arvo Pärt made of Alexander Molosov’s music is anyone’s guess, although it no doubt made Pärt’s symphony sound even quieter than it already is. In an unsurprisingly complete contrast, ejecting brass and woodwind from the stage, Symphony No. 4 announces itself with extreme gentleness; it’s a ‘suspended’ music, not dissimilar to that with which Mahler began his first symphony, although Pärt’s demeanour is warmer and less keen to go elsewhere. Indeed, the lengthy opening (to be played ‘with sublimity’) in no small way captures the essence of both the man and his music: tranquil to the point of stubbornness. A sense of direction arrives in the movement’s second episode, ‘marked with majesty’, timpani and lower strings handling the first part of that instruction, everyone else the latter. It’s an episode that fizzles quickly, though, almost as though Pärt finds the more demonstrative tone he’s expressing shockingly outré. Certainly, by indicating the concluding episode to be ‘soothing’, there does seem to be an attempt—or, at least, a desire—to draw a hasty line under the preceding material in a lengthy, pensive coda that seems to be filled with questions.
Something of this inter-relationship of materials is continued in the central movement, ‘gasping’. While it initially steps out with more determination, deep pizzicati practically thundering out in a rare display of louder dynamics, it too is swiftly absorbed into a more benign music, somewhat chorale-like, but weighty, even pained, in its juxtapositions of consonance and dissonance. All of this happens a second time, stops, and bells sound softly in the silence. Out of which, something approximating a development occurs, the melodic strands now separating and becoming more malignant, the pizzicati interjecting within and around these strands, by turns threatening and embellishing them. There’s a climax of sorts in a moment of, in this context, raw brutality, as the bass drum is violently thwacked in extremis. But the movement’s culmination seems implacably untroubled, continuing its stoic, searching sojourn regardless; the Symphony seems ever to fall short of direct statement, as though there’s something overwhelming wanting to be expressed, but struggling to emerge.
The short, final movement—given only a metronome indication of crotchet=76 in the programme, but labelled ‘Deciso’ on the forthcoming ECM CD release—is indeed, for a time, decisive; a brisk march is established, at first in the cellos and basses, but quickly drawing along the rest of the strings. As the violins reach their uppermost register, it abruptly tails off, and the symphony ends with a rather odd harp chord and timpani/bell strike, almost like an over-emphatic perfect cadence.
There’s no denying that Pärt’s compositional style has a certain magnetism; and while his harmonic language, to my ear at least, now seems tired and (in the sense of colour) dull, the Symphony never quite tips over into being downright boring. But all the same, it’s a peculiar and frustrating work, burning with earnest desires but seemingly incapable (unwilling?) to act on them. As such, it could almost be described as a ‘monastic’ kind of music, although that does rather a crude disservice to those living the religious life. (Speaking of which, at no point did the Symphony seem to be overtly a ‘religious’ piece, which struck me as no bad thing). It seems all too appropriate that Pärt withdrew the epithet ‘Deciso’ from the final movement; the Symphony is nothing of the kind, spending its 37-minute duration treading on eggshells, ultimately too frail to become something, failing to ignite much interest beyond the superficial.