Erkki-Sven Tüür – Mythos

by 5:4

A couple of years ago i wrote about the world première of Erkki-Sven Tüür‘s Symphony No. 9, subtitled ‘Mythos’. It was a fantastic performance of what turned out to be a marvellous piece (i often find myself marvelling while listening to Tüür’s music), so it’s exciting to see that original performance being issued on CD by the Alpha Classics label. It comes with two additional pieces, one light, one more weighty.

Incantation of Tempest is a 4½-minute flash in the pan designed to be suitable as an orchestral encore, but which has turned out to work equally well as a concert opener. As such, it’s everything you’d expect from a work of that ilk: robust, rhythmic, boisterously energetic to a fault with gestures everywhere. Stylistically speaking it’s somewhat anonymous (as most of these pieces so often are), but few composers do energy as well as Tüür, giving it many extra frissons of excitement.

Far more meaty is Sow the Wind, a work that’s concerned with various “disturbing and irreversible processes” that are “consequences of reckless human activity”. The clear suggestion here, in light of that title, is the imminence of ‘reaping the whirlwind‘. Considering the implications of this for a composer as feisty as Tüür, it’s surprising that Sow the Wind generally holds back from an unchecked unleashing of its forces. It’s more about volatility than violence, setting up an environment teeming with mass activity out of which large-scale swells and other shapes emerge. Sometimes these are heard as fanfaric trumpet blasts, possibly a kind of fin de siècle heralding; sometimes they’re less concrete, forming into torrents, rumbles and shrieks, peppered with twiddles and trills, all of which indicate a complete lack, anywhere, of anything approximating rest or stillness. Everything, everywhere, moves, which makes all the more poignant the occasional glimpses of lyrical material that emerge from the midst of all this – but which all too quickly become lost in the melée.

Overall, though, this combination of never-ending restlessness with a general lack of release makes for a fittingly uncomfortable sound world – it’s not really in any meaningful sense a ‘cathartic’ work – emphasising the nature of a situation itself rather than its outcome or repercussions. It’s a piece that needs multiple listens to fully take in everything that’s happening, as it really is hugely complex and detailed. Ultimately, Tüür’s avoidance of a full-blown apocalyptic screed is all to the good. It continues a long-standing trait in his work of avoiding what we might call ‘sonic hyperbole’. While by no means afraid of the monumental or of overload, Tüür consistently finds a way in his work to keep the music coherent without recourse to histrionics or simplistic extremes.

As i’ve prevously written at length about the Symphony No. 9 i won’t go into detail again here. But quite apart from the improved quality of the recording (much richer and clearer than the original radio broadcast), i was struck anew at how the work manages to sound primordial and fantastical at the same time, in both cases tapping deeply into its subtitle ‘Mythos’. Above all, and not all of Tüür’s music is like this, there’s something ‘world-building’ about this symphony. It’s as if we’re listening to a sonified process of organic creation happening in real-time, a mix of gradual and violent stages of development in which new ideas bubble up and emerge from the preceding ones, some of which don’t particularly go anywhere or do very much before they too become re-evolved. i mentioned before the “weirdly grotesque slow descending brass line beneath a playful surface”, and it sounds yet more weird and grotesque in this recording (beginning around 17 minutes in); it’s an incredibly unusual and unnerving effect that i find spine-tingling every time i hear it. The subsequent behaviour of the horns, lurking at first before projecting strange dissonant judderings, is similarly unsettling.

Despite lasting only a little over half an hour, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Symphony No. 9 is easily one of the most powerfully arresting new symphonies i’ve heard in many, many years. i can’t wait until he unleashes No. 10.

Mythos is available on CD and download.

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