Returning to one of my occasional themes, there have been some interesting releases of Estonian music in the last few months. In February, i wrote about the Ninth Symphony by one of the country’s most dynamic composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, so it’s nice timing that the Ondine label has brought out a disc featuring his Symphony No. 8, performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Olari Elts. The disc also features two slightly older, large-scale pieces, Tüür’s 2008 viola concerto Illuminatio and Whistle and Whispers from Uluru, a work for recorder and string orchestra composed in 2007. One of the primary traits of Tüür’s music is energy, and large amounts of it, though the works on this disc demonstrate (as does the Ninth Symphony) that the way this energy is wielded is not only with devil-may-care abandon – though Tüür is hardly afraid of doing this – but just as often with considerable caution and care. Illuminatio, featuring soloist Lawrence Power, is a case in point, placing the viola within a context that encompasses both the monumental and the fantastical, guided by the soloist’s veering between momentum and lyricism. Particularly striking are its second and third movements; the former charting a complex journey between two poles but where the poles themselves are never fully revealed, the latter starting with the viola rhapsodising but somehow ending up in a barrage of orchestrated machine gun fire. The work’s final thrust towards a place of ethereal transcendence makes sense in pretty much the same way that dreams make sense. The recorder part in Whistle and Whispers from Uluru (performed here by Genevieve Lacey) isn’t unlike a catalogue of behaviours from a motley collection of exotic birds. The orchestra’s role is, again, primarily contextual, establishing soundscapes and backdrops as well as punctuating and underlining the soloist’s activities. Which really are quite special, Tüür always maintaining the sense of an ongoing line of melodic invention though forever twisting and spiralling around a network of trills, twiddles and a myriad other curlicues, reinforced partway through with electronics – a moment that, depending on your perspective, either detracts from the work’s established tone or transcends it with some unexpected magic.
The highlight of the disc, though, is Tüür’s Symphony No. 8, a three-movement work composed in 2010. Compared to its successor, it’s very much smaller than the Ninth Symphony, in both duration (25 minutes) and instrumentation, due to being commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, making it the closest the composer has come to writing a ‘chamber symphony’. That being said, from the outset the work gives the impression that Tüür is trying to boost his relatively modest orchestra, making them sound as large and imposing as possible, taking a scurrying opening idea plus some accompanying Messiaen-like brass retorts and wonderfully compounding them and releasing the pent-up energy via a drum kit. It’s a glorious way to not so much start as practically detonate a symphony. Thereafter, though, the music almost wilfully turns its back on all this, reducing to a network of flowing wind lines that eventually just evaporate, literally bringing the piece to a temporary stop. This chop-and-change approach persists in the remainder of the movement, sometimes getting caught up in counterpoint, other times treading water, as if Tüür were playing with ideas on the fly, trying them out a few times in different configurations. Until, that is, that explosive opening jauntily returns (with just a whiff of Walton) to instigate a percussive pile-up before punching the music’s lights out. It’s such an impressive opening that it’s hard to imagine the much shorter second and third movements can live up to it. For the third, instead of adopting the air of a finale, Tüür instead explores dance-like counterpoint, peppered with florid woodwind runs and figurations, until a tutti shrug triggers a heavyweight progression into an undulating locked groove. The second movement is both the symphony’s and this disc’s high point, thin strands of floating gossamer that slowly become enriched, leading to a gorgeous meditation, so subdued and focused at first that its subsequent expansion feels unnervingly immense. On the strength of this and his more recent Ninth Symphony, i really can’t wait for Tüür to write a Tenth.
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is possibly the finest choir i’ve ever heard, though their latest album (released by BIS) is more than usually demanding. Not, though, with respect to the music of Estonia’s most renowned composer, Arvo Pärt, represented on this disc by his setting of the evening canticles Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Performances and recordings of these pieces (particularly the Magnificat) are plentiful, so it’s no small thing when i say that this is, hands down, the best rendition of them i have ever heard. Conductor Kaspars Putniņš avoids any kind of pushing of the tempo, allowing the music to move along at its own pace, and he also makes no excessive dynamic demands on the choir either. The result is quintessential Pärt, solemn and passionate, capturing the ‘inverted praise’ of the Mag and the beautiful mix of tiredness and relief in the Nunc, made all the more overwhelmingly intense due to the amazing clarity of this recording (quite an achievement considering it was recorded in Tallinn’s reverberant Niguliste Church), making the liminal relationship between consonance and dissonance in the harmonies achingly exquisite.
The demands i mentioned come from the rest of the disc, devoted to Alfred Schnittke‘s Psalms of Repentance. In terms of sentiment, taken as a whole they are almost indigestible, being as they are burdened in extremis by the Christian church’s central pivot: sin. i’d go so far as to venture that the expression of self these works articulate is so abject as to beg some serious questions about how healthy the faith from which they sprang can honestly be regarded. The texts come from the writings of a 16th Century monk, and Schnittke’s response to their bleak admissions and adjurations is a pure essay in lamentation and melancholy. Notwithstanding my last few sentences, many of the twelve pieces are staggeringly moving, Schnittke often setting up soundworlds where, despite the choir’s activity and movement, the music exists in an apparent stasis, perhaps hinting at a timelessness and/or a divinity permeating everything. The fourth psalm, ‘My Soul, Why Are You in a State of Sin?’ stands out due to the sheer power of its intimacy, like staring at oneself in a mirror; the eighth, ‘If You Wish to Overcome Unending Sorrow’, displays a lovely sense of impassioned unity, its closing sentiments a rare moment of radiant hope: “Do not despair”; and the eleventh, ‘I Entered This Life of Tears a Naked Infant’, employs the most unbelievably spellbinding close harmonies. As with the Pärt, the performance of the Schnittke by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is staggeringly transparent, which, for better or worse, exacerbates the Psalms’ impact. Yet while there’s something unavoidably depressing and wearying about the texts’ fundamental outlook, Schnittke manages to locate penumbral light in these pools of otherwise infinite black. And sometimes, even when he doesn’t, as in the wordless humming of the final psalm – the whole choir seemingly suspended in liquid – the hypnotic effect he creates is absolutely stunning.
The ECM label has been releasing albums of Arvo Pärt’s music for nearly 35 years, the most recent of which brings together all four of his symphonies in a new recording by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic, conducted by Tōnu Kaljuste. Let’s cut to the chase, and to perhaps the most obvious thing to say about this fascinating disc: even when you know these pieces beforehand, it’s still an eye-opening, illuminating and, frankly, discombobulating experience to hear them back-to-back. And those whose only contact with Pärt’s music is his ‘tintinnabuli’ works (from around the mid-1970s onward) are in for an almighty shock.
The Fourth Symphony (2008), subtitled ‘Los Angeles’, i’ve written about on two previous occasions: at its UK première at the 2010 Proms, i was underwhelmed – but, less than a month later, a performance at the Vale of Glamorgan festival (conducted by Kaljuste) left me feeling much more positively about the piece. Eight years later, having spent time with this recording my considered view of this symphony is that, though not his best, it is extremely strong. The subtitle is a reference to the commissioner (the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association) but Pärt’s primary focus was on the idea of a guardian angel, dedicating the work to someone who suffered for a decade in a Russian prison camp. Musically, it’s at some remove from Pärt’s tintinnabuli style, characterised instead by a kind of disquieted ambient ethereality, its bright colours continually flecked with and undermined by ominous stuff going on in the symphony’s bowels. The three movements almost feel like alternate takes to express the same thing (i’d recommend listening without regard to the movements, treating it as a single 29-minute span), rendered here as a pained but impassioned lament. Leaping back four-and-a-half decades to Pärt’s Symphony No. 1 (1964), it’s not only hard to believe the piece was composed by the same person, but that it was composed by anyone who actually knew what they were doing. Subtitling it ‘Polyphonic’ in no way explains or mitigates the work’s constant changing of its musical mind, moving from episode to episode to episode leaving any sense of continuity or structural unity strained way beyond breaking point. There are moments of interest – such as the first movement’s central climax, which dies back by being atomised and finally vaporised by a cymbal rallentando – but it’s hard not to feel that the music is simply following its nose, and if it’s infectious at all, it’s in the same way as that of Carl Orff, engaging in a kind of empty tribalistic uproar. One of the most frustrating, unrewarding pieces of ‘symphonic’ music you’ll ever hear.
The Symphony No. 3 from 1971 is significantly more coherent, Pärt growing the material from gentle string phrases and blunt brass responses to create a broad, united central idea. The symphony is balanced between bold, heraldic gestures and the kind of earnest pensiveness typical of contemporary Pärt, the latter of which fills the middle movement, becoming an extended post-romantic contemplative essay (with occasional touches of Shostakovich) centred around a vast chorale. Pärt treats his third symphony like a snowglobe, picking it up from time to time to give it a vigorous shake, resulting in aftermaths full of rapid oscillations. Not in the final movement, though, where instead it passes through a sequence of more quasi-modal chorales, constantly shifting between different instruments and groups. It’s a defiantly leftfield conclusion to the symphony, leaving one wondering what on earth happened to all the possibilities opened up and tantalised in the previous two movements.
To say that Symphony No. 2 (1966) is the best of the four is to undersell it: it’s among Pärt’s best compositions full stop, and easily one of the most striking and exhilarating symphonies of the 20th Century. The first of its three movements juxtaposes clarity (individual instruments; lines) and vagueness (mass action; textures) in an apparent vying for attention and dominance. It makes for an enormously tense opening, the first few minutes of which are like trying to walk with confidence on eggshells. Pause; an upward harp glissando; whereupon Pärt unleashes from nowhere a massive muscular tutti – trills all over its surface – that somehow eventually becomes transfigured into a triadic chord. This is developed in the short second movement, a remarkable atmosphere where its main idea (centred on the brass) seemingly keeps accreting instruments around itself, becoming ever more enormous and clunky. Not surprisingly, everything falls apart, culminating in a kind of post-apocalyptic final movement, bare timpani strikes and fragments of string phrases. However, instead of fading to nothing, it turns around, becomes imposing, shatters, muscles its way forward… and as the dust settles on the wreckage and a couple of explosive aftershocks, what emerges is about the most unforeseen thing imaginable: a short quotation from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. It’s a violent, provocative juxtaposition, suggesting the real conflict going on isn’t happening in the music.
The four symphonies on this magnificent disc almost give the impression of four different composers, but that’s precisely what makes it such an enlightening and valuable composer portrait; and in the specific case of Arvo Pärt, who for so many people does just the same kind of thing again and again and again, the symphonies demonstrate that that’s very far indeed from being the whole story.