Arvo Pärt Symphony No 4 is Divergence from His Past with Hope for the Future

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the fourth symphony by Arvo Pärt in January 2009 under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen as part of the Deutsche Grammophon Concerts. Deutsche Grammophon will release a digital download of this concert later this year. Although the piece is subtitles "Los Angeles" it is dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oil executive with political ambitions who now sits in a Siberian prison. While the music is not necessarily cheery, there is a wish for "peace of soul and vigilance of mind" from the composer to all those imprisoned in Russia.

Listening to the recording, the music is sparse and almost lyrical, but very dark - filled with anxiety. There is a depth in tone to the slow moving music, very different than the previous three symphonies Arvo Pärt has composed. In the first movement, the music slowly unfolds as if attempting to find a melody but too anguished to complete it. The second movement adds layers of interesting textures from marimba and pizzicato strings to chimes of cymbols, piano and triangle, almost as if the bells from an Eastern Orthodox Church were tolling in the distance – an other worldly sound. The music is definitely movitic based, but not necessarily melodic. Unlike Pärt’s first three symphonies which are very melodic and angular, his fourth symphony is meditative and solicitous.

In the third movement the shift and sighs of the orchestra returns, with Holst like elements. A solo violin weeps a melody, taken then by the strings. The melody finally comes to the surface as the “tune” descends slowly from the first violins to the violas, then cellos and double basses. When it can go no lower we hear a marching, not a death march but a determination to move forward, to move out, up and free. While the marching begins ominous, it inverts the movement of the melody by climbing through the orchestra until it is floating in the clouds.

Over all it is a beautiful piece and the music does serves well to give the piece the space and intensity it needs - if but for a struggle with the final upper register notes in the last movement. Because the rest of the piece is so very tonal, the problem with these last notes in the recording diminished the final effect of hope soaring over the top. Mark Swed reviewed the concert saying "Nothing when Pärt’s music is performed can be out of place, and nothing here was." Well, for me the tuning was an issue – but otherwise a beautiful piece. I really enjoyed the thoughtful, contemplative aspect of the music and feel Pärt’s orchestration is masterfully done.

It is a wonderful work, not only a departure from what he has done before, but a huge leap forward. There are five planned performances of it this year and another four already for next year all in Europe.

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