Estonia in focus weekend: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Prophecy (UK Première)

by 5:4

Another of the works at the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Maida Vale concert of Estonian music on 4 July was Erkki-Sven Tüür‘s 2007 accordion concerto Prophecy, which received its first UK performance with Olari Elts conducting and Mika Väyrynen (for whom it was written) as soloist. Any composer who writes a concerto has to make a decision about the nature and significance of the relationship between soloist and orchestra, and in the case of Prophecy the entire structure of the piece was dictated by that relationship in this performance.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra interpreted the opening of the work – which starts with the accordion playing a single loud chord, like a huge sigh, after which it falls silent – by biding their time, with rich, sustained chords and quivering pitches, all seemingly uncertain how to proceed, as if they were watching the soloist and waiting for him to do something else. However, when the accordion finally does begin to play again, its material rapid and detailed, the orchestra’s response is contrary, continually steering the music back to their sustained chords from before, seemingly anxious about moving beyond their comfort zone. It gradually becomes clear that the accordion’s role is that of a catalyst, a firestarter acting in order to get the orchestra properly motivated and animated. Eventually it succeeds, resulting in everyone becoming caught up in that most quintessential element of pretty much all Tüür’s music: waves of rhythmic energy and momentum, all syncopations and frivolity.

Tüür opens out Prophecy into a spacious soundworld that becomes dark and brooding, coloured by low registers and bassoon trills. This total contrast with what has gone before – both the general character of the music as well as its dramatic arc, culminating in fun and a sense of triumph – comes as something of a shock, made more personal by the accordion exploring ideas in a more free, almost improvisational way. This shift achieves more than mere contrast: it’s a highly effective strategic move that makes what comes next all the more powerful. From somewhere distant, a woodblock starts up an optimistic rhythm with help from the double basses. This simple idea becomes the basis for Prophecy’s final section, always accumulating more and more instrumental weight and exuberance, finally becoming a frenzied, devil-may-care dance. Such unstoppable momentum ends in perhaps the only way it possibly can, slamming into a series of huge, pounding blows, like putting out a wildfire with high explosives.

As with so much of Tüür’s music, Prophecy is as irreverent as it is irresistible, and if you’d like to hear an alternate take on the piece, there’s a recording available – Olari Elts and Mika Väyrynen again, but this time with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra – that pairs it with Tüür’s even more irreverent Symphony No. 5, a work for big band, electric guitar and orchestra.

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