A disconcerting aspect of some of the pieces performed at this year’s Estonian Music Days was the extent to which their material, language and / or behaviour was obviously begged, borrowed and / or stolen from heavily-worn musical conventions, to the point of outright cliché. This was especially apparent in the concerts focusing on orchestral music. The results weren’t always problematic; although Kristjan Kõrver’s Supra petram seemed to be entirely constructed from short quotations stuck together, these snippets shared strong commonalities, there was a good sense of continuity and, perhaps most importantly, the piece was very short, essentially a concert-opener. All very harmless.
By contrast, Galina Grigorjeva’s 2005 Prayer for cello and orchestra, featuring soloist Theodor Sink, was a depressingly vacuous bit of post-/sub-Tavener slushy garbage – like an ersatz Protecting Veil – with blank aspirations to pseudo-holiness that were, to be frank, revolting. Tõnis Kaumann’s approach to borrowing in his new work The City of Angels, premièred by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, went in the opposite direction, mashing-up classical and jazz tropes to create what was effectively a kind of modern-day cartoon music. On the one hand, it was a piece that perhaps suffered in part from timing; the ongoing conflict in Ukraine (and the concert had opened with the Ukrainian national anthem) made a work of this character seem inappropriate, even in bad taste. Yet its problems went deeper than that; i was reminded of being at the first performance of Thomas Adès’ Asyla, listening to the ‘Ecstasio’ movement with an increasing sense of disbelief at its cringe-worthy imitation of dance music. The City of Angels was nowhere near as accomplished as that though, its hodge-podge assemblage of quotations sounding not merely banal but defiantly stupid. The tepid applause from the audience hopefully told Kaumann all he needed to know.
The most challenging orchestral work to sit through, though, was Rasmus Puur’s Violin Concerto. i mentioned in Part 2 that another work of Puur’s had sounded “dryly textbook and predictable”, and that same issue, now writ very much larger, also afflicted the concerto. First there was its lack of substance, all endless violin arpeggios and generic atmosphere. Then came the realisation that this was a reheated conception of a violin concerto; not a copy, still less a pastiche, but a mélange of mannerisms, ideas, gestures and instrumental interrelationships that we’ve encountered a myriad times before. It was like listening to a mirage; the longer it continued, the more noise it made, the more illusory it was revealed to be, merely a semblance or a figment of something real or authentic. Worst of all was its duration, Puur seemingly adoring the sound of what he clearly believed to be his own voice, aggravated further by soloist Hans Christian Aavik, whose performance seemed not so much faithful as downright obsequious. One of the most insufferable and aggressively narcissistic compositions i’ve had to endure for many years.
Thankfully, the festival featured a range of orchestral music burgeoning with genuine originality and creative imagination. Apropos: Layers Playout by Ülo Krigul, a work for strings in the final concert of the week, given by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra conducted by Andres Kaljuste, that would have been the perfect way to bring the festival to an end (unfortunately, it actually ended with Alisson Kruusmaa’s dismally lifeless Five Arabesques). Its opening pitted suspended violins against highly energetic lower strings, the latter seemingly flexing their muscles in preparation for a punch-up. Yet Krigul soon melded them together, softening the combined result before intensifying it anew, now uniting into a full-blown lolloping galloping. It almost made me laugh out loud at the way Krigul kept ramping up the pressure, seeming to push the orchestra to a point of real danger, before a cheeky momentary pause and a romp to the finish line.
Nothing else in the concert matched the exciting energy of this piece (Jaan Rääts’ 1975 Divertissement had lots of rhythmic vitality, though it was dressed up in the kind of vigorous contrapuntal language that Tippett had explored almost 40 years earlier), but Madli Marje Gildemann’s Transpiration, receiving its first performance, made for an interesting contrast. The emphasis here was on nebulosity, initially setting up discrete pitch strata before moulding them into a unified sustained music coloured by soft tremolandi. One of the work’s most engaging features was its avoidance of obvious focus or development of ideas, which sounds like a recipe for disaster but its gradual shifts in textural quality, and occasional coalescences into something more tangible – such as when the pitches clarified in a richly chordal sequence – kept it interesting throughout.
What was especially striking about the best of the orchestral works at this year’s Estonian Music Days – and this was something of a feature of the festival overall, perhaps an effect of its “Upside Down” theme – was their relative quietness and restraint. This lent them a quality of intense introspection, while at the same time making a paradoxically strong impact. Helena Tulve’s Being Mountain I Remain Silent – completed and premièred in 2013, but only now receiving its second performance – was perhaps the most stunning epitome of this approach. That being said, the work’s title proved highly appropriate: there were times when it felt hard to get a grip on its sheer surface, due to a combination of the engrossing inner convolutions of the musical texture together with the complete solidarity of the entire orchestra to the same end, making for, at times, a seemingly impenetrable mass of unified sound. Yet everywhere small details could be heard moving within, some gaining in force, others fading away, within a simply gorgeous soundworld that displayed lyricism everywhere, though of an uncanny, even somewhat alien kind. At no point did Tulve allow the piece to overflow, opting for implied or potential power rather than a more obvious demonstration of it being unleashed.
Similar was Maria Anna, Wake, in the Next Room, by Jüri Reinvere, who was awarded this year’s “Au-Tasu” composition prize during the concert (for his piece Vom Sterben der Sterne, premièred last year). The opening minutes were utterly beguiling: soft, high, ambiguous string chords mingled with air noise, somewhat elaborated and enriched, the music feeling now as if it had weight, yet pulled back and restrained. Minutes later, this was still ongoing, yet far from becoming overfamiliar or boring, there was the constant tantalising question of what it could all mean or lead to. What that was turned out to be even more ambiguous and delicate, to the extent that it made me wonder whether there might be something agonising about it – like gingerly touching the surface of an open wound – articulated entirely through implication rather than anything remotely approaching direct statement. Over two weeks later i find i’m still thinking about it.
The piece that i think has stayed with me most was the highlight of the University of Tartu Symphony Orchestra’s concert (in Tallinn’s strikingly modern Methodist Church): Maria Kõrvits’ Lace, a work that explored, and teetered on, a balance between line and texture. Initially, the line emerged from noise and disturbed air, growing in strength but with hints of microtonal instability. As it went on, the music gave the impression that, rather than comprising two discrete elements, the line might have actually been the source of the texture, now refracted and distorted into a unified, buzzing haze. There was a strange and beautiful sequence when everything was simplified to a single pitch, continuing tremulously while muted trumpets wailed and percussion chimed, leading finally to an abstract network of chitter and clatter while sustained tones glowed behind. Absolutely mesmerising from start to finish.
All of these concerts are available to audio stream (for free) via Klassikaraadio; two of them can also be video streamed (for a small fee) via the festival’s EMP TV service. Links below:
University of Tartu Symphony Orchestra: audio / video
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra: audio
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra: audio / video