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Music Review: Arvo Pärt – Symphony No. 4

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Arvo Pärt’s glorious new Fourth Symphony is subtitled “Los Angeles” for a couple of reasons. The first is that it was commissioned in part by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The second is a little more complex, and sheds some light on the way the composer works.

Pärt often bases his pieces on the canon of repentance of the Russian Orthodox Church. These can be literal, or figurative. His Fourth is both. Arvo had been toying with the idea of texts relating to the concept of guardian angels. With the commission from a city whose name literally means City of the Angels, the Orthodox text Pärt chose became “Canon of the Guardian Angel.”

Symphony No. 4 is no Hollywood, celestial harp-filled piece. While the 12:04 opening segment “Con sublimata” does evoke something of a sense of wonder, soon the depths of composer’s intentions become clear. The awe-inspiring emotion of miraculous vistas soon gives way to a much darker sound. The second, “Affanoso” (14:12) movement continues in this vein while the third and final “Deciso,” (8:45) finds resolution for his masterful Fourth Symphony.

Arvo’s dedication of the piece to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian entrepreneur who has been in prison since 2003 speaks volumes about his objectives. Presumably the jail sentence was for political reasons, and the composer expresses his feelings about the situation forthrightly: “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.”

As something of a bonus, Symphony No. 4 also contains “Fragments From Kanon pokjanen” (14:50). These selections from one of his major choral works are gorgeous. Again based on the Orthodox Canon of Repentance, these pieces are sung a cappella. The entire work is wonderful, especially for those who are fans of choral music reminiscent of the more famous Gregorian Chant style.

Arvo felt that excerpts from his choral work regarding these texts would compliment his Fourth Symphony quite well. As he puts it in the accompanying book: “I wanted to give the words an opportunity to choose their own sound. The result, which even caught me by surprise was a piece wholly pervaded by this special Slavonic diction found only in church texts. It was the canon that clearly showed me how strongly choice of language preordains a work’s character.”

Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4 was released late in 2010 along with a special edition of his landmark Tabula Rasa (1977) in time to coincide with his 75th birthday. He remains every bit as powerful and fascinating a composer today as ever.

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About Greg Barbrick