In the UK, while it’s not that difficult to find performances of music from many parts of the world, opportunities to hear music from Estonia – with the obvious exception of Arvo Pärt – are extremely rare. So the decision of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to include in their season a concert devoted to Estonian music – celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the country’s independence – came as a surprise and a very real treat. The concert took place on 4 July at the BBC’s famous Maida Vale Studios, and was broadcast earlier this week. Conducted by Olari Elts, the orchestra performed works by three generations of Estonian composers, Eduard Tubin (who died in 1982), Erkki-Sven Tüür and Helena Tulve, all three of them pieces that have been around for some time, but which could do with being a lot better known. In this Estonia in focus weekend i’m going to explore two of them, starting with the piece by the most junior composer of those three generations represented at the concert, Helena Tulve’s Extinction des choses vues (Extinction of things seen), composed in 2007 but only now receiving its UK première.
The way Tulve uses the orchestra in this piece – and in all her orchestral pieces – is to transform it into a kind of giant organism, a single entity comprising innumerable interconnected elements. This is something she and i discussed in some depth during our Dialogue together earlier this year. By keeping the title deliberately abstract, Tulve has also made it interestingly misleading: the musical ‘things’ in the piece are indeed ‘seen’ (or, rather, heard), but often not clearly: we glimpse them, but we cannot necessarily grasp or understand them.
Tulve’s fondness for creating big, complex sound objects like this is as effective as it is disorienting. Before long, during the performance, even though i could still see each member of the orchestra and what they were doing, it was becoming impossible to perceive exactly what sounds they were making: individual activity had been overwhelmed by mass action, like bees moving within a large swarm. This suggests that Extinction des choses vues lacks any clarity, and while clarity obviously isn’t Tulve’s intention for the first two-thirds of the piece, there are tantalising moments when details briefly become apparent. A good example of this is the opening of the work, where beautiful chords hover and scratchy ideas flow around them, giving the distinct impression that at any moment a melody might break out. It doesn’t, Tulve instead greatly intensifying the full orchestral texture, but as it grows and expands, here also small details buried within occasionally seem to be momentarily clarified. In hindsight, faced with such an enormous, coagulated throng of sound it is entirely possible that we imagine these details as a by-product of our ears and brains struggling to resolve the music that is saturating our senses.
Regardless of whether they’re real or imagined, these tiny details foreshadow the twist in Tulve’s musical narrative as the orchestra abruptly runs out of energy, culminating in the complete opposite of everything we’ve heard so far: soft percussion grains and violin tendrils; polarised registers from low double basses and high string harmonics; vague, meandering piano notes; pieces of pipe being blown through to create complex overtones. Nothing but details, in fact, though each and every one of them sounding as the vestige or trace of something infinitely greater that has, in an instant, been entirely snuffed out. In this performance, from both a musical and a dramatic perspective it was a breathtaking transfiguration, Olari Elts keeping the BBC Symphony Orchestra under strict dynamic control, and despite now being able to hear the musical ideas with infinitely greater clarity, making sense of them was no easier than before. The exquisite shimmering stasis that brings the work to an end, performed by a chorus of wine glasses, seemed to reinforce this sense of dazed confusion, causing the entirety of the Maida Vale Studio, and each and every one of us within it, to throb and resonate.
If this performance whets your appetite, a recording of the piece – also conducted by Olari Elts, with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, and taken a good deal quicker than at Maida Vale (which only makes it more overwhelming) – is available on the excellent ECM disc Arboles Lloran por Lluvia. Together with this piece, the disc features four other of Tulve’s works, all involving voices, including the beautifully lyrical chamber trio silences/larmes (silences/tears) and Reyah hadas ‘ala (Perfume of myrtles), a gorgeous exploration of words by Shalom Shabazi for voices and early music consort.