Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4 (ECM New Series 2160)

Symphony No. 4

Arvo Pärt
Symphony No. 4

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Symphony No. 4:
Concert recording January 2009, Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles
Engineer: Fred Vogler
Producers: Bruce Leek and Fred Vogler
Kanon pokajanen:
Recorded June 1997, Niguliste Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

…grace and pardon are all the more necessary as the laws are absurd and the sentences are cruel…
–Cesare Beccaria

Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4 “Los Angeles” (2008) was the result of a Los Angeles Philharmonic Association joint commission. The symphony is dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian political prisoner in whose moral steadfastness Pärt found inspiration for the present work. Says the Estonian composer, “The tragic tone of the symphony is not a lament for Khodorkovsky, but a bow to the great power of the human spirit and human dignity.” Compared to his earlier symphonies (an almost 40-year gap separates this and the Third), the Fourth is transparent in being scored for string orchestra, harp, timpani, and percussion, and all the more transcendent for it. That being said, there is a certain weightiness here not to be found in the others, achievable only through the modest means by which he breaches its many sound barriers. Here, Pärt has taken seeds from his more recent works for strings and cultivated them into a near-silent, looming forest. In the capable hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in this premier live performance, we can be sure that we are hearing every leaf of that forest humming with fervent ceremony.

The symphony takes a tripartite structure. “Con sublimità” opens us to a stretch of high strings, at once stratospheric and subterranean. A struck triangle drops like a feather onto this cosmic pond. Rather than evoke such an image and leave it at that, Pärt traces each ripple outward to the very fringes of our ken. Timpani introduce a mournful strain for the movement’s latter half. “Affannoso” is brought to life by deeply resonant pizzicato clusters, which recur like insistent memories that never quite materialize. At times, these interrupt more protracted bowings, while at others they ride a tectonic shift of mallet percussion. The metallic sheen of a brushed cymbal arcs over a bowed reinstatement of the pizzicato theme. A quote transposed from Psalom makes a ghostly cameo, bleeding into the rumbling of a distant storm and its attendant tubular bells. More plucked strings etch their thoughts across sheets of glassine chords in “Deciso” before a martial rhythm (echoing Pärt’s Te Deum) rides in sideways. The violins stand on their tiptoes, reaching for a cloud that isn’t there, only to realize that in this new space there is infinite possibility.

Based on the Russian Orthodox “Canon to the Guardian Angel,” the Fourth Symphony is Pärt’s first major engagement with canonic texts since 1997’s Kanon pokajanen. Hence, its pairing with fragments from the selfsame work. If the inexpressible repentant beauties of the Kanon were almost too potent to bear in their entirety, in this 15-minute redaction we find ourselves no less overwhelmed by the force of their texts, which push us into a chasm of divine trust like no other. Still, the Fourth Symphony is as much an invocation as this vocal counterpart, for it takes the same air into its lungs and blows it across the fields in all of us.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is one of the world’s finest acoustical achievements, and its benefits are put to fullest advantage here. Every echo resolves itself with the smoothest dissolution in a delicate balance of fire and ice. Blessedly, the applause on this recording is elided in favor of a seamless transition from one “choir” to another, lest the spell be broken.

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