It is entirely too easy to look at the past and wonder where the greatness is today. In 1734 George Frideric Handel was composing operas at London's Covent Garden. Domenico Scarlatti was in Madrid, serving as music master to Princess Maria Barbara, for whom he composed many of his 555 keyboard sonatas. Johann Sebastian Bach was toiling away in Leipzig as Cantor at Thomasschule and Kapellmeister at Thomaskirche, composing his Mass in B minor
. Does musical firepower like this exist in the post-modern 21st Century?
Well, in a word, Yes.
Quietly, and sometimes not so quietly Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has been writing compelling sacred and symphonic music for the past 50 years. In 1984, Pärt found a friend and advocate in ECM Records' Manfred Eicher, who, after founding his label in 1969, devoted to improvisational music only, expanded the label with the New Series imprint specifically for Pärt's Tabula Rasa
. Since then Eicher has provided Pärt a secure home populated with superb musicians to interpret his music.
Perhaps the leading choral composer, Pärt has also composed much notable orchestral music. He has not provided a symphony since his Symphony No. 3, published in 1971. The Symphony No. 4, subtitled "Los Angeles," is the first orchestral offering from Pärt released on ECM, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the directions of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Where Pärt's first three symphonies were scored for full orchestra, Symphony No. 4 was written for string orchestra, harp and percussion. It was originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Canberra International Music Festival. Pärt completed the piece in 2008 and it received its premiere on January 10 2009 in Los Angeles, at Walt Disney Concert Hall, conducted by Salonen.
The symphony is performed in three slow movements: Con sublimita
. Pärt favors dramatic, high-register strings, preparing a smooth and gliding terra musica
. The composer, always enamored of small percussion, augments the strings with strategically placed timpani, marimba, crotales, chimes, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam and bass drum. All are integral in Pärt's masterful development, which carries through cumulatively through the three movements. It is an icy warmth that envelopes the symphony, one that is a paradox only Pärt can compose.
Filling out the program is a 1997 performance of fragments from Kanon Pokajanen
, which Pärt had composed for four-part (SATB) choir. The book is the "Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ," an Orthodox hymn written composed originally in Greek by St. Andrew of Crete in the eighth century, and translated into Slavonic the next. The text is sung in Church Slavonic, a cappella
. This recording serves as a superb introduction to Pärt for the uninitiated.