Estonia in Focus weekend: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Symphony No. 9 ‘Mythos’ (World Première)

by 5:4

i’m now turning my attention this weekend to Erkki-Sven Tüür, a composer whose work in many respects sounds distinctly different from a lot of Estonian contemporary music (and as i’ve previously mentioned, he remarked to me last year that he feels himself to be something of an outsider). To get the 100th anniversary festivities of Estonia’s declaration of independence up and running, Tüür was commissioned to compose a new work, which received its world première a few weeks back. The combination of this being Tüür’s ninth symphony, and also being part of an important national celebration, have evidently guided Tüür towards writing a work of considerable epic scope. Subtitling the work ‘Mythos’, Tüür’s Symphony No. 9 is a 35-minute, single-movement work that to an extent sets itself apart from the most familiar aspects of his compositional style. Instead of a preponderance of rhythmic and gestural cavorting, Tüür has created a large-scale slab of meticulous musical evolution through shifting textures and atmospheres.

Tüür recently told me that there’s no programme note for the piece, which is perhaps a very good thing. As it is, it’s difficult not to hear the work as something primordial, emerging through its opening minutes as a collection of nascent ideas: deep rumbles and drones coloured with fast, silvery sounds, networks of soft string actions and wind trills, plus granular sounds resembling various kinds of air and wind noise, and occasional chimes, that in this context sound positively numinous, as if triggered by something beyond the music’s frame of reference. When a melody starts up in the wake of this, it sounds almost impossibly new by contrast, seemingly the product of an immense leap of imagination and effort to move beyond mere shapes and actions and create something concrete. This is one of two types of tension that Tüür wields throughout the symphony, creating a fascinating relationship (and, at times, ambiguity) between tangible and evanescent ideas. The tone of voice Tüür uses is similarly two-fold, embracing both intimidatingly imposing tutti swells as well as glitter-strewn fantastical orchestrations, in the process marvellously proving that tapping into these kinds of archetypes does not necessitate music that sounds like a film score.

The other, more far-reaching type of tension that Tüür employs throughout the piece is more courageous, as it could easily have caused the work either to come apart at the seams and/or caused listeners to disengage entirely. Around 7½ minutes in, the symphony arrives at a sequence that’s ostensibly climactic: a clear but complex orchestral texture in which the brass act (somewhat discreetly) as the muscle, pushing it on, subsequently punctuated by accents and concluding in a rich, multicoloured burst. There are two things interesting about this: first, it’s not a specific, single peak that the music reaches and then moves away from, but multiple pinnacles that together form an extended apex that very obviously towers prominently above what precedes and follows it. Second, there’s a distinct sense that this apex is the culmination of a process that actually began at the start of the entire piece, and that everything thus far, though it wasn’t obvious, had been building to this point. This is the first instance of it, but it’s something that Tüür uses throughout the ‘Mythos’ symphony, avoiding the temptation to unleash the full forces of his obviously very large orchestra in favour of exploring ideas over long periods of time, making the contour of the piece more about convoluted undulations than abrupt summits rising from nothing.

The danger in this, very simply, lies in overdoing it, working an idea so hard and for so long that either it or we become worn down, yet the way Tüür works with his ideas – which essentially amounts to music undergoing a constant process of development – avoids this every time. He achieves this by rendering ambiguous the current state of the orchestra’s energy; for example, there’s a point around twelve minutes in when it seems for all the world as if all hell is about to break loose, like the first thunderclaps before the sky rips in two. Two minutes later and this same sense is continuing, now rendered as Hillborg-esque vast cascade of woodwinds; another two minutes on, and still it persists, evolving via Tippett-like string figurations into a passage redolent of Haas, the orchestra split between a weirdly grotesque slow descending brass line beneath a playful surface. There’s something wonderfully disorienting about this, lending large portions of the symphony a knife-edge tension, repeatedly leaving one wondering if a climax has, in fact, just passed, or whether something even bigger is set to come. (It’s interesting what this reveals about the ways we attempt to navigate through long, unbroken stretches of abstract music.)

Though the symphony, as i said, is generally at some remove from the most familiar elements of Tüür’s work, particular the overt rhythmic drive that features in so many of his compositions, his fondness for taking a tiny gesture and using it to construct something massive can be heard from around the 20-minute mark, when a rising four-note motif acts like a flame gradually setting light to the entire orchestra. One hears this a lot in Tüür’s work – particularly in Flamma, performed at last year’s Proms – but in the context of the symphony it’s another instance of Tüür obsessively pushing an idea for all its worth, and in this case takes over eight minutes to arrive at its zenith. All this reflects the broader fact that there’s a level of ambition and lyrical intensity demonstrated throughout the Ninth Symphony that go beyond what one usually encounters in Tüür’s music. The closing minutes, coming in the aftermath of such bewildering enormity, are exquisite. Glistening solo violins emerge and float, like an outbreak of refracted chamber music, and though the music is increasingly suspended and radiant, coloured with harp and tam-tam, energy persists – and makes its presence felt – even here. In keeping with all that went before, it’s not a piece where the end is obviously in sight.

To find your way through such a complicated, twisting approach to musical narrative as this is hugely stimulating and enjoyable. i’ve listened to the symphony numerous times and each time it’s been a very different experience, my disorientation being the only constant, leading to new discoveries and (re)appraisals of what’s going on. It’s a work that fully earns its name and its place as a symphony – especially a ninth symphony – as well as vividly capturing the essence of its subtitle ‘Mythos’, creating a potent musical parallel of the interpretation of complex phenomena which, once developed into shared local beliefs and stories, form the foundation of all societies, old and new. Societies that can become strong enough to fight oppression and reclaim their independence. Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Symphony No. 9 embodies both myth and history, natural and supernatural, tangible and ephemeral, but however it’s interpreted, above all conveys an elemental force of conviction that, though abstract, leaves no room for doubt.

The world première of Symphony No. 9 ‘Mythos’ took place on January 16 in Tallinn’s Estonia Concert Hall, performed by the Estonian Festival Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.

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