Arvo Pärt's “Fourth Symphony”, subtitled “Los Angeles”, was written in 2008 and premièred in January of the following year, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. That first performance is reprised on this disc. It is the first of Pärt’s symphonic pieces to appear on ECM New Series, the label closely associated with the Estonian composer since the 1984 release of “Tabula rasa.”
“The symphony is exceedingly beautiful,“ wrote Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times in January 2009, reviewing the premiere concert. Pärt’s return to symphonic structure and scope (in a work scored for string orchestra, harp, tympani and percussion) created great interest amongst press and public, for almost forty years had passed since the composer’s 3rd symphony. In the interim, many of the fundamentals of Pärt’s art had been overturned, his epochal “Tabula rasa” wiping the slate clean, that the composer might begin again. In the new symphony his radically reductive tintinnabulation style is focused upon the larger form.
The idea of the symphony first began to take shape in Pärt’s mind in a period when he was reflecting upon texts related to guardian angels. A commission from Los Angeles, a city whose very name means 'the angels' was timely, and confirmed his decision to make the “Canon of the Guardian Angel” the foundation of the new piece. The Fourth Symphony, then, is both literally and figuratively a 'musical setting', based on an underlying text which forms the work’s point of departure, determining its structure down to the smallest details. Paul Griffiths has noted that this music is “saturated with chant: in its modality, in its phrasing, in its repetitions and alternations, in how groups answer one another, in how – more as in the western church than the eastern – percussion instruments are used to make ritual signals. The orchestra seems to be straining to enunciate a litany, the stretched strings to sound as if from angel throats.”
In making a canon the starting point of a symphony, Pärt once again allowed the spirit of Church Slavonic poetry to permeate the musical fabric, as he had done in his 1995/6 choral work “Kanon Pokajanen”. “To my mind, the two works form a stylistic unity and belong together”, the composer explains. “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.”
Appropriate, then, to bring together the Fourth Symphony on disc with a new editing of the “Kanon Pokajanaen” – “Fragments” as Arvo Pärt calls them. Like newly-found pieces of a mosaic reassembled, they can give us a powerful sense of the whole. This recording of the “Symphony No. 4” is issued in time for Arvo Pärt’s 75th birthday on September 11, and in a period when a number of Part events are taking place. Esa Pekka Salonen conducts the Fourth Symphony at London’s Royal Albert Hall on August 20th in the Proms series.