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Eduard TUBIN (1905-1982)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1931-34)* [32’21"]
Symphony No. 2, ‘The Legendary’ (1937-38)* [31’45"]
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1940-42)* [33’28]
Symphony No. 4 in A major, ‘Sinfonia lyrica’** (1943/1978) [35’32"]
Symphony No. 5 in B minor (1946)*** [30’15"]
Symphony No. 6 (1954)* [31’36"]
Symphony No. 7 (1958)**** [25’45"]
Symphony No. 8 (1966)* [28’41"]
Symphony No. 9 ‘Sinfonia semplice’ (1969)**** [22’22"]
Symphony No. 10 (1973)**** [25’21"]
Toccata (1937)**** [5’38"]
Suite from the ballet ‘Kratt’ (‘The Goblin’) (1961)*** [23’55]
*Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
**Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
***Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
****Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Neeme Järvi
Recording dates and venues:
Symphony No. 1 Berwald Hall, Stockholm, Sweden 20-23 October 1986
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6, Berwald Hall, Stockholm, 10-12 June 1085
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 8, Berwald Hall, Stockholm, 16-19 September 1986
Symphony No. 4 at a public concert in the Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway 5 November 1982
Symphony No. 5 and Kratt Dominikanerhaus, Bamberg, Germany, 1-3 July 1985
Symphony No. 7 Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden, 25-27 May 1987
Symphony No. 9 Gothenburg Concert Hall, 4 September 1981
Symphony No. 10 Gothenburg Concert Hall, 31 October 1986
Toccata Gothenburg Concert Hall 2 February 1984
BIS CD 1402/1404 [63’20"+64’01"+62’46"+65’24"+75’49"]

This collection of CDs is a formidable illustration of the proselytising power of recordings. I remember when these performances were first issued back in the mid-1980s. At that time I had never heard of Eduard Tubin, still less had I heard any of his music and I guess the same was true of many music lovers outside Scandinavia. I collected some of the CDs then but I never invested in all the issues. Now BIS have collected the symphonies into a boxed set of 5 CDs, which is offered for the price of three (some of the original "fillers" have been omitted.) Not only does this reissue offer the prospect of convenience, it also offers newcomers to Tubin’s music the chance to experience his symphonic output in chronological order (the original releases were not in that order).

In the last three decades Neeme Järvi has done a great deal of pioneering work in the recording studio but it may well be that in due course his achievement in bringing Tubin’s symphonies (and many other of his works) to the attention of a wider public will be seen as one of his most important accomplishments. He has succeeded in putting Tubin’s music on the map to such an extent that a rival cycle of the symphonies is now being recorded by Arvo Volmer and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra for the Alba label. Furthermore Järvi’s son, Paavo, has recently recorded the Fifth Symphony with his Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (though I’m not aware that that’s the start of a third cycle.)

These discs reveal that Tubin was a lucid, committed and very interesting exponent of symphonic form. He favoured a three-movement structure. Indeed, no less than six of his symphonies are set out in this way. Only two, numbers 4 and 8, are in the traditional four movements. Symphony No. 9 is in just two movements while its successor is cast in just a single movement. (Tubin began work on an eleventh symphony but left only one movement complete at the time of his death.)

It will be apparent from the timings at the head of this review that Tubin was a pretty concise symphonist. The longest in the canon, Number 4, lasts 35 ½ minutes in Järvi’s hands. Furthermore, very few individual movements exceed 10 minutes in duration With the exception of the one-movement 10th Symphony, the longest movement is 14½ minutes long. Tubin was a succinct thinker who said what he had to say and then moved on. He was also a very good orchestrator. The First Symphony is not, perhaps, as well scored as its successors but thereafter Tubin displays an increasingly sure touch in his handling of the orchestra. There is plenty of imaginative writing for strings and wind and I should think that brass players find his scores particularly rewarding to play. He writes well for brass, though listeners should be warned that he is not afraid to deploy the entire brass section at full throttle in climaxes. The scores teem with inventive detail.

The thematic material is also consistently interesting. The listener’s ear is always led on naturally and logically. These symphonies require concentration on the part of the listener but they are far from unapproachable. The language is emphatically tonal. The one thing that I should say, however, is that Tubin’s mien is essentially serious. Humour does not figure to any great degree and even a movement marked ‘Festoso’ (the finale of the Sixth) is not very festive in tone. But I must not give the impression that these works are bleak or forbidding, for they are not. It is more a case, I think, that Eduard Tubin respected the symphony as the apogee of musical thought and not something to be treated lightly.

Though Tubin is very much his own man some passages reminded me of the work of other composers. I hesitate to use the word "influence" since most of the composers of which I was put in mind were contemporaries and I am unsure to what extent Tubin would have known their music. I will mention these comparisons simply as signposts which may give listeners new to Tubin some idea of what to expect. Over all looms the shadow of Sibelius. Perhaps this is inevitable given Sibelius’s prominence in Nordic musical life. Tubin’s debt to Sibelius lies, I think, in seriousness of purpose, clarity of vision and a readiness to imagine large musical vistas, albeit over fairly condensed timescales. Occasionally in the earliest works the music of Bax came to mind (though I doubt very much that Tubin could have known his music). This was especially the case in the First Symphony where to my ears there is a really Baxian feel to the horn solo (CD 1, track 1, 0’48"), followed by the plaintive writing first for the winds and later for the strings. There were further echoes of Bax later in the movement (4’08") when we hear a keening oboe solo over gently pulsing strings. It is, however, a craggy Sibelian grandeur that, above all, permeates this work.

There are echoes, unconscious, perhaps, of Sibelius elsewhere in the earlier symphonies. In the first movement of the Second Symphony Tubin conjures a climax of awesome power (CD2, track 1 from around 3’10"), which is powerfully reminiscent of Tapiola. Again, in the opening movement of the Fifth the pulsing rhythms may suggest an affinity with the first movement of Sibelius’ Third. However, I was also reminded of Honegger. (Indeed, there were several occasions when the Swiss master came to mind, not least in the Eighth symphony which seems to inhabit something of the same territory as Honegger’s Second and Third symphonies, masterpieces both.) One last "signpost". According to the notes several commentators have adduced the influence of Prokofiev in the Sixth Symphony. I wouldn’t disagree, at least in terms of the orchestration (not in relation to the melodic material, however, nor the harmonic language.) But in this work I thought of another Soviet composer, Shostakovich, and specifically his Fourth Symphony. Tubin could not possibly have known this work since Shostakovich suppressed it until 1961. However, in the biting climax of the opening movement of Tubin’s Sixth, I detected a similarity with the dark power and ferocity of Shostakovich’s Fourth.

As I say, these references to other composers are intended simply as signposts. If you respond positively to the music of any of the twentieth century masters mentioned above then I think there’s a good chance you’ll like Tubin.

Space does not permit a detailed commentary on each symphony. However, several call for individual mention. Number Two seems to me to mark a significant advance on its predecessor right from the start when soft, luminous string chords create a magical aura. The second movement of this work is a funeral march of increasing potency and tension while the finale is exciting and, like so much else of Tubin’s output, has a strong rhythmic pulse. My listening notes conclude with the phrase "hugely impressive symphony".

The Fourth also seems to me to be quite splendid. It was the first in which Tubin essayed the four-movement structure (and by coincidence it was the first of these symphonies issued by BIS.) The title ‘Lyrica’ is amply justified for sweeping, engaging string and wind lines catch the listener’s attention right from the start of the first movement. A lighter touch is evident as compared with the Third symphony. And when the first brass-led climax arrives (CD4, track 1, 4’42") it’s all the more impressive for having been delayed. The extrovert, dynamic scherzo teems with energy while the andante is ardent and soaring. The finale is vigorous and almost carefree – it’s the sunniest music encountered in the Tubin canon so far.

I also much admired the Eighth which no less an authority than Robert Layton has suggested is Tubin’s symphonic masterpiece. It’s a stretching piece for the listener because it is, perhaps, the darkest and most introspective of all the symphonies. However, it is well worth the concentration required. There is a bleak power in evidence here, especially in the first of the four movements. The second is dominated by a sinuous, even insidious, little woodwind motif and the powerful, searching finale builds to a wrenching climax before dying away into stillness. In a set that is distinguished by much fine orchestral playing it is perhaps significant that this deep symphony receives an outstanding performance.

Tubin’s Tenth and last completed symphony is also a fine piece of work, not least in its effortless but highly skilled compression of the music into a single movement, yet one which contains the essential ingredients of a four-movement work. Though not intended as such (he lived another nine years after its completion and began work on an eleventh), with hindsight it seems to sum up his symphonism. The thematic material is all pretty closely related and the structure is tightly organised – a two-note horn call recurs frequently and acts as something of a punctuation mark. The last five minutes or so comprise a noble, elegiac passage of music, led by the strings and rising to a towering climax before subsiding into a peaceful close. These few minutes of music seem to me to be an excellent summation of the work of this fine and resolute symphonist.

Inevitably there are some less inspired parts of the canon. In comparison with what was to follow the First Symphony seems a little lacking in subtlety at times though in its own terms it’s a very assured and auspicious start to a symphonic career. I have to say that I don’t care much for the finale of the Third Symphony, which strikes me as a bit blatant and bombastic. Allowances must be made, however, for this work was penned in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Estonia and there is a strongly nationalist feel to the whole piece. The notes relate that the piece was warmly received at its première in the Estonian capital, Tallinn in 1943 and I’m bound to say that if I’d been an Estonian music lover present that day I’ll bet I’d have cheered too.

I’m conscious I have said scarcely anything about the performances themselves. Frankly, little need be said. The standard is consistently excellent. Neeme Järvi is completely inside Tubin’s sound world and seems to have an instinctive, unerring feel for the idiom. Tubin could scarcely have had a better advocate for these pioneering recordings. Working with several orchestras, Järvi inspires them all to give of their considerable best and blemishes are few, even in the two live recordings (though, surprisingly, the documentation doesn’t make this clear, the Ninth Symphony was also recorded before an audience.) I’d single out for especial praise the playing in the Sixth and Eighth symphonies (both by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra)

If the playing is consistently excellent the same is true of the recordings. All are in the best traditions of the house. In other words, they are very clear and natural with excellent perspective. There is no unnatural spotlighting yet an abundance of detail registers.

The one regret I have is that the documentation is not up to the usual very high BIS standards. There is a very good biographical note. However, in the interests of space and economy, I assume, the detailed analytical notes, which accompanied the original releases, have been reduced to an overview essay in which each symphony is addressed in a single paragraph, some of which are very brief. Given that Tubin’s music will be unfamiliar to many and that this set offers such an opportunity to become acquainted with it the lack of detailed information about each piece is to be regretted. However, that is one blemish in an otherwise excellent set.

It seems to me that Eduard Tubin’s symphonies constitute a significant contribution to twentieth century symphonic literature. Though their music is vastly different I’d compare his achievement to that of Edmund Rubbra for both exhibit a consistent sense of purpose and of integrity in their respective symphonic outputs. Sadly, both composers are still undervalued, I think, but recordings such as these (and Richard Hickox’s equally fine Rubbra cycle for Chandos) can only help their cause.

This set, offered by BIS as five CDs for the price of three, represents an outstanding bargain and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

John Quinn

See also review by Rob Barnett

If you wish to listen to sound samples of Tubin you can do so from the following links to our partner site Ludwigvanweb.

BIS-CD-304 Symphonies 2 and 6

BIS-CD-306 Symphony 5 Suite from the ballet Kratt

BIS-CD-227 Symphonies 4 and 9

BIS-CD-297 Symphony 10 Requiem for Fallen Soldiers


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