Neeme Järvi is the constant throughout the ten
symphonies written across the scorched tracks of forty plus years of
European history. These were years of dispossession, of oppression,
of uprooting and loss.
Tubin was born in a rural backwater, his musical skills
exercised through playing in village bands, at dances and at weddings.
Estonian independence in 1918 was a heady brew and Tubin drank it in.
The years between the two great conflicts of the last century saw the
composer travelling to Leningrad, Paris, Budapest and Vienna. Both Kodaly
and Bartók saw the scores of the first two symphonies. During
most of the 1930s his base was the city of Tartu. He was there when
Soviet troops marched in in 1940. Four years later it was imperative
that he leave Estonia. He went with his family to Sweden. He was not
to return to Estonia again, and then only for visits, until the thaw
set in 1961. Sweden welcomed him with respect and provided him with
premieres and radio broadcasts. In his last decade from 1972 onwards
international interest grew, partly fuelled by the underground tape
network, the convenience of the cassette and the trickle of Swedish
radio broadcasts. This was such that his last completed symphony was
premiered in Boston as part of that orchestra's centenary season.
The trudging ascent of Tubin's music into the zone
of international knowledge was ironically facilitated by the flight
to Sweden. His first four symphonies, up to 1944 and the departure,
were all premiered by Estonian Radio under the conductor Olav Roots.
From the Fifth onwards the premieres were with Swedish forces with Neeme
Järvi conducting. The exception is the Tenth Symphony.
Sweden's steadfast support for this refugee found its
zenith in Bis's commitment to record the orchestral music. Bis kept
its word. While the two operas were recorded by Ondine most, if not
all of his output, can be found on Bis.
These are DDD recordings with the exception of one
disc - that containing symphonies 4 and 9 and the Toccata.
We tend to forget how much of a 'one man band' Bis
was in its earliest days. Some of us can trace our way back to their
stunning LP recording of the Sallinen symphonies 1 and 3 (I still have
it). True to those early days Robert von Bahr, the proprietor and benign
genius of Bis, was the producer of the recordings of symphonies 1-6
and 8. Lennart Dehn and Michael Bergek account for the later symphonies.
The Tubin symphonies are available separately at considerably
greater expense if you would rather be more selective. If you are determined
to follow that route then my recommendation is that you start with the
CD of Lirica and then move to the Second and Sixth.
What of the performances and recordings? Järvi
knows his Tubin very well. Heaven knows how many times he conducted
the Estonian radio orchestra in Tubin works before his own flight from
the homeland. He recorded the Sixth Symphony on a Melodiya LP (now reissued
on a small American label (a disc reviewed elsewhere in this site FORTE
CLASSICS AOR-16, Further details from distributors:-Artists Only! Records,
West Coast Office, 9644 Lochinvar St, Pico Rivera, CA90660, phone 562
948 3008; fax 562 948 2608. www.artistsonly.com) and became the emissary
in chief for Tubin across the world. The Fifth is driven as is the Third,
full of the sort of chaffing energy we find in Stravinsky's Symphony
in C but more humane, I think. Rhythmic life is one of Tubin's hallmarks
and he does not lose sight of this even in contemplative serenades such
as the looping and weaving andante of the Fifth.
These works are predominantly dark or chilly. A midnight
shiver and glimmering casts a spell over the high pianissimo of the
opening of the Second Symphony which is nominally Sibelian. The finale
of No. 2 after a blurted out brass alarm launches a mysterious piano-adumbrated
chase with suggestions of a jazzy high-hat drumkit. The Sixth Symphony
often has the protagonists standing near the edge of abyss - aware of
the chaos below and the coarse-coursing attack that drives Tubin further
and further from conventionality. That said he does not dally with dodecaphony
though a dissonance, freely applied in the manner of Prokofiev, is part
of his armoury. Tubin's powers and principalities do indeed clash by
night as in the caustic mysteries of the Eighth Symphony. Their conflicts
are played out in sunlit regions although, as in the finale of the Third,
Tubin is not averse to glowing heroics. That line can be traced into
the Fourth which is well named the Lirica. You can make easy
converts to the Tubin cause if you go straight to the second movement
allegro of this work which dances along with potent fragrances
from Borodin and Rimsky mixed among the gestural Prokofiev material.
After the prayerful mood of the andante the joyous and straight-talking
Allegro, decked out with the warm rolling sway of horn calls,
makes its smiling mark. This is a concert performance given in Bergen
in 1981 - a concert that ignited the Tubin renaissance as much as BBC
Northern's 1977 broadcast of George Lloyd's Eighth Symphony was the
progenitor of the Lloyd revival. Tubin's Ninth is stark and sober; relatively
difficult to grasp - in this respect comparable with Rubbra's Eighth
(Teilhard de Chardin) and Tenth (da Camera). The 1937
Toccata chaffs along with piano and brass providing galvanic
ignition. The Seventh Symphony mixes grotesquerie with the sort of bleak
sea-wandering you hear in Nystroem's Sinfonia del Mare, Slavonic
witchery and mysterious pattering marches. The single movement Tenth
is resolutely dark-toned and at times has the bleakness of late Mahler
(Symphonies 9 and 10).
The ballet Kratt (The Goblin) was premiered
in 1943 in Tartu. It was a joint collaboration with the dancer Elfriede
Saarik, later to become his wife. He wove into it some thirty Estonian
folk songs and dances. I hope that one day we will get to hear the complete
ballet. For now we must make do with this eleven movement suite grouped
into three tracks. It lasts twenty-three minutes. Stage nightmare music
like that from Nutcracker characterises some of the Dance
of the Goblin. The music establishes parallels with Prokofiev and
in the solo violin music with the peripatetic village fiddlers. This
prompts thoughts of Gunnar de Frumerie and of Holmboe tracing paths
of autochthonous renewal already followed in their own countries by
Kodaly, Holmboe (Rumania in his case), Bartók, Grainger, Moeran
and Vaughan Williams. This is music of strange vistas, distant sunsets,
blurted fanfares, icy upheavals and the brash griping of ignorant armies
clashing by night. Ibsen’s Peer Gynt would have understood the belligerence
that creases and ruckles this landscape. The dances of The Goat and
The Cock are related to Shostakovich's scathing imagery. The
concluding Dance of the Northern Lights (a Tubin fixation expressed
in the Sixth Symphony and the Second Piano Sonata) slams along in the
manner of Mossolov and the final braying 'raspberry' from the brass
shouts a defiance that was intended to be subversive. If we can have
the whole of The Limpid Stream and The Age of Gold, I
see no reason why we should not have the complete Kratt.
The recording quality across this set is, for Bis,
typically natural, unglitzy, certainly muscular, eschewing zooming and
contrived balances and devastatingly focused.
The creation of this set had been ingeniously managed.
The discs of pairs of symphonies are a straight lift from individual
CDs all still on the retail shelves: 2/6 (Bis 304), 3/8 (Bis 337) and
4/9 (the earliest release, on Bis 227). The First was originally coupled
with the Balalaika Concerto on Bis 351 and the Fifth from Bis 306 where
it coexisted with the Kratt suite. The Seventh is from Bis 491
where it shared with the Piano Concertino. The Tenth migrates from Bis
297 where it is accompanied by the spareness and restraint of the Requiem
for Fallen Soldiers.
An epic pilgrimage then - both temporal (331 minutes
and 20 seconds) and of the spirit. The Finnish Alba set is still in
train and making very slow going. The Bis has the advantage of Järvi
whose insights and authority must be valued. How sad that there is no
trace of the Olav Roots' broadcasts of the first four symphonies. I
wonder how they differed, if at all, from Järvi's readings.