A new symphony is always an exciting musical event, but Arvo Part'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 Part 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 Part'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 Part. 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.
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