Arvo Part: Symphony No. 4
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Arvo Pärt returns to symphonic structure and scope, in a new work scored for string orchestra, harp, tympani and percussion: the Symphony No. 4 'Los Angeles'. Almost 40 years after his Third Symphony, the Estonian composer wrote his Fourth for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen - and ECM releases their premiere performance, recorded live in January 2009, to celebrate Pärt's 75th birthday.
This is the first symphonic work Pärt has written since developing his "tintinnabulation" style. A composition in three movements, it opens with characteristically shimmering suspended chords, and an extraordinary journey begins. "The symphony is large", wrote Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, "and exceedingly beautiful".
The Fourth Symphony is both literally and figuratively a 'musical setting', based on an underlying text. Canon of the Guardian Angel forms the work's point of departure, determining its structure down to the smallest details. It was recorded live at LA's Walt Disney Concert Hall. The 37-minute work is augmented on disc by a new montage of "fragments" of Kanon Pokajanen, a piece which Pärt feels is closely related to the symphony. "To my mind, the two works belong together and form a stylistic unity."
Personnel: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Tonu Kaljuste (conductor)
A new symphony is always an exciting musical event, but Arvo Pärt's Fourth Symphony feels particularly noteworthy. First, it's almost 40 years since he composed his Third, in 1971. Second, the universal popularity of works such as Spiegel im Spiegel means Pärt is more in the collective consciousness than many contemporary composers.
The symphony's subtitle, Los Angeles, refers as much to its subject matter as to the fact that the LA Philharmonic are its co-commissioners, for it's a wordless setting of an angel-related text, Canon of the Guardian Angel. Scored for string orchestra, harp, timpani and percussion, its three movements are correspondingly ecclesiastical in mood: modal harmonies, repetitions, and the percussion massively evocative of the bells and clangs associated with the rituals of the Orthodox Church. Like much of Pärt's other works, it weaves the effect of musical suspension in time, helped by motivic and stylistic similarities across its three movements. Each movement, however, also has its own character. The first creeps into being with hushed, high shimmering strings. The second begins with a series of percussive musical tiptoes, like a tragedy-tinged musical version of the grandmother’s footsteps game. In the third, the bells which hitherto have evoked the tinkling chimes of a church service suddenly develop a tolling tone more akin to a death-knell.
A clue to the work’s tragic mood lies in its dedication to an imprisoned Russian entrepreneur. It isn't a political statement though, insists Pärt. Instead, it's “a bow to the great power of human spirit and human dignity”. Compare it to the Third Symphony, which does feel heavy with anti-Soviet feeling, and this rings true. Nevertheless, the Fourth is still an unrelentingly sombre listen. It’s beautiful too though, and some of the charged atmosphere of its concert premiere, when this recording was taken, has transferred to disc. The LA Philharmonic weave an atmosphere of controlled, tragically noble limbo, with wide-ranging and finely controlled dynamics, easy transitions from chamber to orchestral textures, and a hauntingly beautiful third-movement violin solo.
The Estonian Philharmonic Choir are just as effective in the Kanon Pokajanen fragments. These lift the mood, if not to full-blown happiness then certainly to a better spiritual place, delivered in a crisply enunciated, religiously-weighted performance.--Charlotte Gardner
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Top Customer Reviews
His music has been described as tintinnabulation, based, as the name suggests, on the ringing of bells (and the kind of musical changes evoked by bell-ringing. However, the sound-world he has created is subtle and often static.
The Symphony No.4 does not fit easily into the accepted idea of symphonic music, largely due to the calm, focussed nature of the piece, which bypasses symphonic argument in favour of a limited, if intense, musical progression through the slowest and subtlest of harmonic changes.
I heard this piece at its UK premiere at the Proms: Pärt managed the seemingly impossible feat of concentrating 6000 pairs of ears on his soft-voiced opus (does it rise above pianissimo? - It certainly didn't seem to) for over 35 minutes.
I suspect the symphony will gain greater credibility on disc, if only because such a solitary experience- Proms excepted- is hard to sustain in the concert hall. It seems to need headphones or a quiet room.
We are left with the question not of whether this is symphonic music, but whether it is effective music: clearly if you expect your music to be an all-guns-blazing orchestral showpiece, you would be disappointed. However, if you have time for the kind of still reflection this piece requires, you will find it absorbing and contemplative.
The choral pieces which provide the filler occupy a similar sound world and are beautifully sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.
It could almost convert you to a religion.
OK that might be OTT - perhaps I'm feeling my mortality - but catch this in the right mood, and really listen and it is transcendental. One could imagine the clouds parting, the blinding light, angelic host, and arrival at wherever your prejudices dictate you should be. Let it take you; forget musical categories (and religion!), this is music for the soul and spirit.
The programming of an excerpt of Kanon Pokajanen after the symphony I initially found irritating as I'd had the two disc Kanon set for a long while; however with further listening it is not so much an 'also available' plug as a logical conclusion: the symphony takes you, this is where you go - you could argue.
While the recording responds to decent equipment with the depth one expects from ECM there is some background noise (more irritatingly detectable with headphones) - it is a live US concert recording, but this not something you get with LSO live recordings for example. I recorded the BBC Prom UK premiere by the same conductor in 2010 and found the interpretation to have developed from the ECM world premiere recording in 2009 which I got soon after - but at least you don't get audience shuffling and coughing on the ECM version!
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Arvo seems to be picking up momentum at the moment.
If you are looking for for somewhere to start then this (and Kanon Pokajanen of which fragments of finish off this cd) is... Read more
The music on this disc is excellent - very slow and atmospheric. However I found the recording to be very poor. Read morePublished on 2 Feb. 2012 by L. Davidson
I have enjoyed the music of Part for many years and have, in fact, recently visited Tallinn in Estonia, which was his home City. Read morePublished on 21 Oct. 2010 by Michael Wadge