Out of silence

The UK premiere of Arvo Pärt's powerful Fourth Symphony was spoiled by the Royal Albert Hall's muffled acoustics, writes Nick Shave

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From the season so far, a number of contemporary works have made a lasting impression on me: young British composer Luke Bedford’s miniature Outblaze the Sky – an astonishingly accomplished exercise in orchestral colour – is one; Harrison Birtwistle’s explosive three-minute masterpiece Sonance Severance from the same concert (Prom 16) another. Frustratingly, neither is available for download.

Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4, ‘Los Angeles’, on the other hand, is a whole lot easier to find via Google (it's on iTunes on DG, and now on disc on ECM) – surely good news for anyone who attended the Philharmonia’s performance of its UK premiere at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday and instead of Pärt, was struck more by the Hall’s muffled acoustics, not to mention the sound of lungs hacking, programmes rustling and general faffing and fidgeting.

Pärt had been nervous about performing his work in the huge unforgiving spaces of the Royal Albert hall – and with good reason. The stand-off between the work’s ethereal string harmonies, beautifully crafted out of silence, and the softening acoustics of a hall that contained around 4,000 only-human people would have been a battle of David and Goliath proportions, had the heavy ambience not squished Pärt’s motifs and won from the outset.

Dedicated to Mikhail B Khodorkovsky, a Russian oil oligarch who has been controversially imprisoned since 2003, the Symphony is, according to Pärt, ‘an expression of great respect for a man who has found moral triumph amid personal tragedy. 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.’

Rhythmically structured around the words of the orthodox prayer the ‘Canon of the Guardian Angel’, the instrumental piece is divided into three movements and written for only strings, harp and percussion in his meditative ‘tintinnabulation’ style. It opens with shimmering string harmonics – soft, indeed almost inaudible – beneath which sombre sustained harmonies slowly revolve, punctuated by gentle pizzicatos and delicate chimes.

The piece is both stark and emotive. At times the ‘Los Angeles’ Symphony brought with it filmic flavours of Hollywood harmony, yet Pärt’s motifs are positioned with architectural precision, eventually marching into the distant ground of the violin’s upper registers from whence they came.

Unfortunately, what gives this symphony its depth, however, is silence. Woven into the fabric of the work, it powerfully punctuates Pärt’s ideas – sometimes empowering them and pushing them into the foreground, at others appearing to hold them captive and stifling their movement. On the iPlayer, you can’t hear the whirr of television cameras as they move between percussionists as we could in the hall, which helps.

Ironic acoustical gripes aside, however, Esa-Pekka Salonen brought some otherwise terrific sounds to the stage, opening with the industrial imitations of Alexander Mosolov’s The Foundry, Op. 19, and later striking the appropriate note of triumph in Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54. Post-interval, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s rendition of the Ravel Left-hand Concerto was, too, delightfully animated.

Prom 46: Mosolov: The Foundry; Pärt: Symphony No. 4 'Los Angeles'; Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy
Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen

Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall.

 

Related links:
Proms Diary: Glory to art?
Review: Pärt's Symphony No. 3 conducted by Takuo Yuasa
Review: In Principo: music by Arvo Pärt 

 

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