Erkki-Sven Tüür: Seventh Symphony/Piano Concerto (ECM New Series 2341)

Seventh Symphony

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Seventh Symphony/Piano Concerto

Laura Mikkola piano
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi conductor
NDR Choir
Werner Has Hage choirmaster
Recorded June 2009 at Alte Oper, Frankfurt and June 2010 at hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt
Recording producers: Eckhard Glauche (Piano Concerto) and Hans Bernhard Bätzing (Symphony No. 7)
Recording engineer: Thomas Eschler
Executive producer (hr): Andrea Zietzschmann
An ECM/Hessischer Rundfunk (hr) co-production

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts, we make our world.
–Siddhartha Gautama

ECM’s sixth New Series album dedicated to Erkki-Sven Tüür spins the Estonian composer’s pen like the hand of a great karmic clock until it lands on some of his most ambitious writing to date. Tüür has come a long way since being introduced to ECM listeners on Crystallisatio, changing his compositional method not only nominally but also materially as he branches further into the cosmos by means of more orthodox assemblages. No longer do we get the standalone tone poems, the vocal juggernauts, or architectonic fragmentations—or, it might be more accurate to say, we get all of these together, now compounded into a fresher biological code, the dots and dashes of which find kindred souls on the pages of two massive scores in the proverbial formats of symphony and concerto.

The Piano Concerto of 2006 resounds with consciousness. Laura Mikkola is the soloist, nestled in the silvery tones of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Paavo Järvi’s erudite direction. Although the concerto assumes a tripartite structure, each movement dovetails into the next by means of an inexhaustible life force. The low piano hit and high bell that open the piece are pure Tüür: compactly dynamic and self-aware. Like the outer rim of an eclipse, it exposes arcs of fire normally obscured by the sun’s extroverted shine. This change of light allows us to see that everything is quilted. Due to its fragmentary grammar, the piano allows us to perceive only the asteroids it gifts to the atmosphere. Mikkola takes on no small task in finger-pedaling fault lines along the orchestra’s landscape. Fans will note the flutes from Crystallisatio making a distant cameo, but find them short-lived and intermittent in the grander scheme at hand. And while the piano, as a compositional tool, is this music’s genesis, in performance it feels rather like a membrane of intellectual freedom.

If the first movement is interactive, the second is retroactive. The beauties of the latter’s solo piano introduction cannot be emphasized enough. It’s wonderful to hear Tüür’s piano writing in unaccompanied snippets, for these reveal a composer who gathers his sweep with nothing wasted. The string writing in this instance is overtly narrative in style, cutting the scene with razor-thin sheets of rain and giving more pronounced voice to percussion and brass. A jazz piano trio signals the final movement, which morphs into a deep-space drone of starlight and comet-tail blues. Whether one sees such idiomatic choices as tried or true, they nevertheless tease out a playful heart beneath all overlap.

EST

The Symphony No. 7, subtitled “Pietas” (Devotion), is something of a spiritual hodgepodge. Dedicated to Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama) and his lifelong endeavors, it pairs the same orchestra with the NDR Choir, singing words attributed to the historical Buddha (from the collection known as the Dhammapada), as well as a lyrical potpourri from such diverse sources as Jimi Hendrix, Saint Augustine, Mother Teresa, and Deepak Chopra. Any opinions about its interfaith message are easily quelled by the symphony’s command of scope, which becomes more microscopic the larger it grows. Like the minnow to the frog, it speaks in origins.

So vast is Tüür’s vision that one can hardly be surprised at the entrance of the chorus, because the singers seem built of the same primordial stuff. The relationship between elements—strings, percussion, winds, and voices—is one of neither construction nor deconstruction, for they swim in parallel. The second movement hurtles its satellites farther into space, catching them in galactic nets with athletic precision. The third begins in helical spirals of brass and timpani but becomes more jagged with polyglot idioms. This leaves the 20-minute final movement, which is a symphony unto itself. There is a thick undercurrent to the singing, as if barely hanging on for all its gravidity, which is then atomized by the orchestra’s gradual materialization. Heavenly geometries unfold overhead, even as shadows crystallize below. Strings take on increasingly vocal qualities in the “thrown-ness” of their utterances, uniting with choir into a closing benediction of vibraphone.

Tüür seems always to have abided by his own string theory and awareness of the interconnectedness of things. In a marketplace where fellow Estonian Arvo Pärt has dominated contemporary classical music’s outreach even to those professing little interest in the genre, I can only hope that Tüür will continue to gain wider recognition for his comparable mastery and that others will realize there’s a little bit of all of us in the genetic evolution of his compositional voice.

Erkki-Sven Tüür: Strata (ECM New Series 2040)

Strata

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Strata

Jörg Widmann clarinet
Carolin Widmann violin
Nordic Symphony Orchestra
Anu Tali conductor
Recorded May 2007 and June 2009, Estonia Concert Hall
Engineer: Maido Maadik
Assistant engineer: Jaan Tsadurjan
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

The music of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür is much like his name. Its frame contains doubled elements, a cosmic chemical signature that embraces a hyphenated signifier in the middle, connection to some gravid space from which one can observe the unfolding of his distinctly personal character. Of that character we get plenty on this album, his fifth for the New Series, for which the usual roster of ECM performers is swapped for the phenomenally talented Nordic Symphony Orchestra and its principal founder and conductor, Anu Tali. Together they bring luminescence to two recent works with mellifluous authority.

The Symphony No. 6, the subtitle of which gives this album its name, is in fact dedicated to Tali and the NSO, who commissioned it. From the first bars, the reasons behind this inception become clear, for the musicians play this music as if they have known it all their lives. Composed in 2007, Tüür’s massive symphony is a master class in affect. It heralds a new direction for the maverick composer, who abandons his “architectonic” method (although echoes of Crystallisatio remain) in favor of self-styled “vectorial writing.” Where the former embodied an interlocking or amalgamation, the latter is more of an expansive or, in the composer’s terms, “genetic” development. One might say that architectonics constructed the body in which the cellular divisions of his vectorial composing could divide. Evolution over invention.

The nature of this newer method is obvious in the symphony’s opening and closing bars, stretching as it does a sudden awakening into a dream of perpetual motion that, like all such experiments, inevitably journeys toward stasis. The result of all this is an orchestra that moves amorphously but singly, even if particular instruments do leave trails in the water. In the latter vein, for instance, piano and harp share a brief yet memorable dialogue. On the whole, strings lurk in recession for some time before revealing their palette of light—all the more effective in music that seeks through a glass darkly.

What makes this feel like a symphony at all is perhaps its grandness of scope, which nevertheless retains an internal spirit, as indicated by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) percussive touches throughout. Tüür’s feel for color and space in this regard is so acute that it opens doors in the mind one never knew were closed. The smoothness of his transitions likewise enhances another symphonic staple: a feeling of luxuriance and orientation of detail that are remarkable for a 33-minute duration. Tüür’s narrative language is thus overlapping yet practical, a form of meta-speech that stretches a whisper to a sigh and allows the listener to draw any number of conclusions.

Noēsis, composed in 2005, grew out of a very different commission (by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra London, at the behest of Neeme Järvi). Although billed as a concerto for clarinet, violin and orchestra, the soloists are scurrying forces, less leading and more integrative. Each section of the orchestra becomes the panel of a fan, unfolding one rib at a time to reveal a connected focal point. Clarinetist Jörg Widmann joins his sister, violinist Carolin Widmann, in this wonderfully evocative piece, which is equally illustrative of Tüür’s new approach. Unlike the symphony, it begins in a hush of ambience that smoothes into the clarinet’s refracted introduction. The violin, on the other hand, is possessed of a free, if trembling, quality. The orchestra, meanwhile, pitches slowly, a boat on waves of molasses. The ending is one of Tüür’s finest, a braid of violin and clarinet carried into afterlife by a soft gong hit, resonant and touched by the sun.

Tüür’s craft has always been deeply physiological, but with Strata he shows it to be also physiologically deep. Whereas his previous work seemed forged from raw material (cf. Ardor), now it issues a line of spider’s thread, pulled by an unseen hand from galaxy to galaxy. It is an expansion rather than a compression of time, the audio equivalent of quantum physics, the equation of which again finds articulate form in the name.

Erkki-Sven Tüür: Oxymoron (ECM New Series 1919)

 

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Oxymoron

Pedro Carneiro marimba
Leho Karin violoncello
Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann piano
Vox Clamantis
NYYD Ensemble
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Olari Elts conductor
Ardor recorded March 2003 at Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn
Engineer and recording producer: Maido Maadik
Produced by Eesti Radio
Salve Regina, Dedication, Oxymoron recorded June 2006 at Estonia Concert Hall and Issanda Muutmise church, Tallinn
Engineer: Margo Kõlar
Recording supervision: Helena Tulve
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Oxymoron is ECM’s fourth album dedicated entirely to the exciting music of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür. Each of its four pieces is recorded here for the first time.

The album opens with his 2005 Salve Regina for male choir and ensemble. Beginning with a plainchant-like tenor line amid pattering hand drum and dissonant clusters, it blossoms into the creeping breath of organ, whose quivering configuration leaves us primed and centered for Ardor. This concerto for marimba and orchestra (composed 2001/02) is characterized by engaging, halting rhythms and quick clusters splayed against a terse backdrop. The marimba would be enough to carry itself on its own, and seems not to need the orchestral accompaniment, but the harmonics of the flute, signaling a sustained drone from orchestra in the second movement, prove that Tüür knows what he is doing. As he traces each finely shaped footstep of percussion in the softer sands of the ensemble at large, the sound becomes fuller, more urgent and demanding, reaching a drummed frenzy in the sustained tone that concludes, only to die in a wisp of tide.

Dedication (1990) for violoncello and piano is the earliest piece on the album and is an especially welcome addition to ECM’s ongoing Tüür survey, which now tunes our ears to his uniquely detailed approach to chamber idioms at last. Here are his melodic skills at their most potent, at once straightforward and crafty.

The 2003 title piece on which the album ends is exactly what it professes to be, fusing contradictory gestures of form and execution in a seamless whole. The overall effect is colorful, almost jazzy, and intensely involving.

Tüür’s typically unstable lines are so alive that they develop their own biological signature through a wealth of successive properties. Here is a voice never content in being still, one that is always challenging itself, growing toward something infinite and nourishingly whole.

Erkki-Sven Tüür: Exodus (ECM New Series 1830)

 

 

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Exodus

Isabelle van Keulen violin
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi conductor
Recorded May 2002 at Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Exodus is the third ECM outing for Erkki-Sven Tüür and represents a particularly robust electron in the Estonian composer’s molecule of exploration. To be sure, his music (as Tüür himself is first to admit) is all about energy: its explosions and implosions, its heads and tails, its ruptures and healings. Yet in these three premiere recordings one finds also a consistency of purpose, whatever directions Tüür takes. Looking, for instance, at the 1998 Violin Concerto, we find that the relationship between soloist and orchestra has been transmogrified. No longer is the violin (played with due crispness by Isabelle van Keulen) a moderator, but now a transducer of biological information in a vast, multi-cellular organism. Both forces filter one another until their registers cross-pollinate, leaving the arpeggio as the only discernible genetic signature. The violin is at once dancer and stage, opening itself like a strainer through the first movement. Between the microscopic percussion and winds to the dialogic cellos, there is plenty to entice us. Tüür’s multi-tiered approach lends itself well to the concerto form, such that the soloist is not always the centerpiece of the work’s visual display, but is sometimes just as content to inhabit a corner of it, or even to jump off screen for a spell. Keulen, who brings a personal affinity for the piece to bear upon her performance, clearly revels in this freedom as she frolics through countless clima(c)tic possibilities. The second movement undermines the formulaic fast-slow-fast structure with a layer of interrogation. Protracted reveries share the air with ephemeral platitudes, each a jagged accent strung toward the final highs. All of which brings us to the decidedly brief third movement, which pits marimba and double basses in a condensed debate. This escalatory format, a notable forte of Tüür, then clusters around flute and glockenspiel dramas more reminiscent of his earlier architectonic pieces, drawing a tail of vibration to end.

After this juggernaut of a concerto, the two orchestral pieces that follow seem to fit more opaque slabs of color into this emerging stained glass window. The wind-heavy Aditus (2000, rev. 2002)— written in memory of an early mentor, Lep Sumero—is also rich with brass expulsions and percussion. It conjures a a pile of sonic coinage at once sullied and newly minted and leads almost seamlessly into the 1999 title composition—this dedicated to its conductor, Paavo Järvi. Those same convulsive flutes coupled with glockenspiel haunt every nook of the music’s ecstatic unwinding. Vast orchestral forces subside into a more liquid sound, trampling through the fallen branches of introspection. Flutes flutter into the distance like flock of birds while strings lay down an icy drone: the tundra of self-awareness, melting in the sunlight of a tinkling bell.

If we take exodus to mean a forceful expulsion from one’s roots, then we might see the music of Tüür as being engaged in a likeminded project. It thrives on the asymmetries of displacement and the new symmetries forged in its place. Listening to Tüür’s music is its own experience, one in which we encounter a book to which language seems but a shadow, for the moment we try to capture it in words it has already been forced into a grammar as arbitrary as my own.

Erkki-Sven Tüür: Flux (ECM New Series 1673)

 

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Flux

David Geringas cello
Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded July and August 1998, ORF Studio, Vienna
Engineer: Anton Reininger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

ECM follows up its astonishing debut of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür with a program of further deconstructions. With his architectonic shovel, Tüür burrows out an idiomatic hovel for himself in the sands of today’s placid musical shores. Every motif is its own voice, building to powerful fruition from the smallest of sparks. To start, the Symphony No. 3 (1997) clicks its tongue with a delicate cymbal. Like the corona of a jazz dream, it wavers through a swarm of failed bass lines and reeds. The lower strings ascend in a brief march before being drowned by a vibraphone. The ensuing cloudbursts recall the composer’s wintry Crystallisatio. Percussion becomes more pronounced as stuttering rhythms break the first movement into pieces. In the second movement, a glockenspiel ruptures the high strings as a snare hit unleashes a brass menagerie. The flute emerges for a solo passage as strings process gently in the background. The string writing recalls Tüür’s Passion, albeit transposed to a different key. The symphony ends with a single note from the vibraphone, dripping like a water clock into mortal darkness.

Tüür’s aesthetic is so fractured that the concerto would seem an anachronism, but his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1996) epitomizes the very essence of his craft, planting as it does a single generative seed firmly in the soil of introspection. His background as a rock musician comes through noticeably in his bold rhythmic choices, while the piece’s single-movement structure ensures that its signals remain explicitly contained. The vibraphone reprises its vital role, oozing like plasma from an open wound. It is not the soloist that arises from within the orchestra, but much the reverse. And as the vibraphone weaves its way deftly through the orchestra’s open spaces, a single note on strings hints at relaxation. Tüür gravitates toward higher notes here, so that even in descending motifs the apex gains precedence as pedal point. He ends with a celestial cluster, a galaxy spinning out of control until it implodes.

Lighthouse (1997), for string orchestra, is one of Tüür’s most cinematic pieces, which, if we are to take the title literally, would seem to render its eponymous structure from the outside in. We track its light first, and the afterimage it leaves on the screen, only to be given view of the mechanism that turns and amplifies its voice in the night like a siren to the dark ships of its surrender. The lush scoring painfully picks apart and rebuilds the lighthouse, turning it inside out, so that its column is now made of light and its reassuring beam becomes the mortar of its foundation, sweeping its potent arm through the air and knocking everything in its path. This is not a violent piece but a purposeful one, sustained by architectural consciousness. It tells its story in hefty chunks, if always through the fog of recollection. Its agitation enacts a sort of tragedy, a body descending from its topmost rail, flailing its appendages helplessly before the sand engulfs its last breath. Yet the music is anything but morbid, only mournful in the realization of its own complicity in the ending of a life, and the beginning of a new one.

Tüür’s aphasic approach has made him one of the most sought-after composers of our generation, and not without good reason. His stable foundations allow him to build teetering creations that never quite tumble. His music works very much like thought, constantly rationalizing its decisions in hindsight. The most transcendent passages are always stirred so that they become muddled without obscuring individual colors. Despite the seemingly disparate elements of these mosaics, Tüür’s is not a process that imposes itself upon the elements at hand. Rather, it recognizes and values its inner life and the varied ways in which one can externalize it.

Erkki-Sven Tüür: Crystallisatio (ECM New Series 1590)

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Crystallisatio

Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste Conductor
Recorded 1994-1995 at Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn
Engineer: Maido Maadik, Estonian Radio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür (b. 1959) admits that we are products of our environment. To be sure, he and his compatriots would seem to have carved out a distinctive niche in the terrain of classical music, chipped from the ice that locked their creative heritage under Soviet rule. In the same breath, however, he cautions us about adhering our identities to any particular place over another, lest we shun the illustrative details of our indeterminable experiences. In that sense, there is something to be said for music, which in Tüür’s case is as close to audio refraction as one can get: there is no distinguishing its inner and outer upheavals. Enter architectonics, an abiding process through which Tüür discloses the chemical compositions of his singular auditory experiences. As a onetime prog rock musician, he brings a “band” sensibility to his sound, in which one hears an undeniable cohesion.

Architectonics VI (1992) for flute, vibraphone, and strings descends from violins into a series of complex resolutions. It is mathematical in the truest sense, making a case for chaos as its primary expression. Convoluted outbursts from winds, neither spastic nor deliberate, are punctuated by strings, shining a light into this lively debate of inter-instrumental politics.

Passion (1993) for string orchestra is a rare achievement. Its development recalls Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, working its way from ground level into the stratosphere of our emotional purview. Its shifts from minor to major keys glisten in a dew-drenched field, accepting the sun’s slow rise. There is, in this piece, as much lateral movement as vertical. Each stage is both a revival of the past and a rehearsal of the future. As the upper strings tighten their grip on reality, the cellos resound with a note for the ages, not unlike a certain tenor’s proclamatory crest in Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, if relatively foreshortened.

Illusion (1993) for string orchestra dances with every sinew of its bowed body. Though brimming with dynamic suppleness, it turns every statement into a new paragraph. As double basses mark staccato points of articulation, violins reassert their seemingly innate desire to lead. Tõnu Kaljuste’s immaculate direction brings phenomenal dynamic control to bear as the piece builds into an ecstatic reinstatement, an aesthetic lock that grows progressively quieter until the final exultation.

Crystallisatio (1995) for 3 flutes, glockenspiel, strings, and live electronics ushers us into a congregation of drowsy banshees, draping themselves in the canopy of a darkened forest. Electronically processed flutes echo like spirits recast in the image of their own reflection. The cellos are given a mournful urgency, through which they enact a promise of daylight. The glockenspiel’s doublings tickle our very spirits with their arousing pinpoints. The frenzy mounts as the processing reveals its illusions more explicitly. We end on an overblown flute and a single glockenspiel note—a drop in the cosmic pond.

Requiem (1994) for soprano, tenor, chorus, triangle, piano, and strings is the masterpiece of this program, and beyond reason enough to buy this album. Written for friend and conductor Peeter Lillje, it gives us the clearest portrait of an artist working in real time. A struck triangle opens the proceedings, from which baritones spin the Introit. Strings operate sympathetically as the cellos double the tenor line, and the violins skip along their own skyward paths. A tenor introduces the Kyrie eleison as the violins continue their improvisatory pirouettes. Vocal constituents volley back and forth, while at their center a piano comes crashing down in a rupture of spiritual information. Altos and sopranos emerge from the rubble as wavering sirens. They keen and shout in Orff-like exuberance before cracking open a breathtaking Rex tremendae in tutti. A lithe soprano provides reflection in the Recordare. A violin wanders abstractly in timid, almost insectile, commentary. All the while, choral forces are gathering themselves toward a somber end that reenacts the cycle’s beginnings.

Violins play a key role throughout, scratching like an animal searching for something buried but long decayed, a kernel of faith long sprouted into the tree under which it claws in vain. The triangle that opens and closes the Requiem is proof positive that the most direct access to enlightenment isn’t always the grandest, but that sometimes the keyhole rupture of the blinking eye, and the single glint of light upon the tear that falls from it, are sufficient to show the way. The piano, too, plays a commensurate role, a voice of reason at center stage.

This is a transportive album—absolutely so—and one that I will always champion. Like the frozen surface of the jacket photo, it seems at first glance a field of stars, forever locked at the height of brightness. Although I do not feel that ECM’s subsequent Tüür releases have quite attained the magical realism of this one, anyone who shares an enthusiasm for Crystallisatio would do well to place the others alongside it. Tüür’s resolutions are always revolutions in that they, through the promise of completion, only bring forth further fragments for consideration. Rather than trying to achieve balance through this process, Tüür seems to want to make a meta-statement regarding the nature of his compositional process, which is constituted by a need for discourse and reevaluation. Like the tintinnabulations of Arvo Pärt, his atmospheres lay out for us the very topography of a nameless musical environment. Every turn brings about a new needle of contention by which to sew our physiological threads. This is music that makes no promises, yet in doing so fulfills countless numbers of them. As one of ECM’s most groundbreaking releases, second perhaps only to Giya Kancheli’s Exil, this is a must-have for the New Series enthusiast.