Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Symphony No. 4 Los Angeles (2008) [35:09]
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Kanon pokajanen (fragments) (1997) [14:50]
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Tönu Kaljuste
rec. January 2009, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles (4); June 1997, Niguliste Church, Tallinn, Estonia (Kanon). DDD
ECM NEW SERIES 2160 (4763957) [49:59]

Arvo Pärt's Fourth Symphony was premiered by the above forces on 9 January 2009. The work was also their commission jointly with the Canberra International Music Festival and the Sydney Conservatorium.

The Symphony has as an underlying theme: the existence of guardian angels. The music’s meditative nimbus is established through giddily high violin harmonics moving in steady progression. The high ‘ting’ of a single bell provides an earth for the reverentially shifting clouds of sound. There’s also a Bachian accent which rises to considerable chorale emphasis in the first movement. The crump of the timpani speak of tragic earthly things. The first movement Con sublimita is followed by a Affannoso of similar gravity. Amid the sternly devotional strings an orchestral piano sparingly joins the high resonating bell impacts with vibraphone and small insurgencies of vital panicky pizzicato. The bells in this movement sometimes suggest a ritual and the metallic shimmers at 5.45 to signal some sort of epiphany. The shifting blocks of strings unnervingly echo Valse Triste and at the end there’s the seraphic peace of Allan Pettersson's Seventh Symphony but without the nightmare undertow. The high-lying strata of the strings continue into the Deciso finale becoming impassioned indeed. There are minimalist interventions from harp and a more extended contribution from the solo violin. A gruff march at 5.50 links with Shostakovich and is further evidence of that deciso marking. The ambience indicates an audience present but the applause has been most skilfully elided without any cliff-drop in ambience.

The fragments of Kanon pokajanen for voices alone take chant as the core. The effect - which is more passionate than in the symphony - is intensified by the wonderful church acoustic and by the superb choir which sings with tenderness and ringing affirmation whether in unison or in tiered sections.

The opalescent and illuminated symphony should appeal strongly if you already have a penchant for Pärt's Cantus, Valentin Silvestrov's Fifth Symphony, Kancheli or early Tavener. There are two other composers who came to mind as I listened. The first is Alan Hovhaness whose slow-stepping temple dances may occur to you once or twice while listening to the Pärt. The other composer is much younger: Alla Pavlova whose sweet-tempered romantic string writing is engaged throughout her symphonies. Pärt's sustained lyricism is present in all three movements. As ever these impressions are not intended to suggest plagiarism or lack of originality - simply to give a series of reference points even if these parallels are always crudely approximate and often out of chronological sequence.

The Kanon reasserts Pärt's roots in worship. Here is a composer whose stock-in-trade is sincerity, who will not retreat into complexity and obfuscation and who retains allegiance to tonality. This music should find a ready audience.

Rob Barnett

A composer whose stock-in-trade is sincerity, who will not retreat into complexity and who retains allegiance to tonality. Should find a ready audience.