Erkki-Sven TÜÜR (b.1959)
Illuminatio for viola and orchestra (2008) [23:44]
Whistles and Whispers from Uluru, for recorders and string orchestra (2007) [13:57]
Symphony No. 8 (2010) [25:32]
Lawrence Power (viola)
Genevieve Lacey (recorders)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Olari Elts
rec 2016/17, Tapiola Hall, Espoo, Finland
ONDINE ODE1303-2 [63:47]
Ondine are clearly taking up Erkki-Sven Tüür’s cause in a big way – this is their fourth major release of his orchestral music in recent years. In spite of the huge increase in popularity of Baltic (especially Estonian) repertoire, Tüür has relied extensively on the judicious patronage of ECM, but his appeal and influence is clearly broadening. The present disc includes two concertante works and a symphony from the last decade, a period which has seen Tüür move ever further from compositional foundations originally rooted in minimalism and what was once dubbed ‘The New Simplicity’. All three of these works are mightily impressive and amply repay repeated listening; the conductor Olari Elts clearly has the measure of them, and most obviously an ear for how best to draw out the detail of the intriguing colours Tüür manages to extract from both soloists and orchestra.
The viola concerto Illuminatio dates from 2008 and was commissioned by a consortium of five orchestras after an initiative by the Norwegian violist Lars Anders Tomter, although Hyperion stalwart Lawrence Power is the eloquent soloist here. From its truly luminous, spacious opening, it is clear that this piece is goal-directed and purposeful. The viola enters with a sustained major second, whereas harp and tuned percussion interject as if presenting fleeting shafts of light. The tones Power draws from his instrument are predominantly low and rough–textured, but certainly not unattractive; indeed Tüür’s orchestration is ornate and captivating. At times, the Tapiola Sinfonietta creates an enormous sonic backdrop, quite belying its size. The piece convincingly synthesises texture and melody until at a certain point, the latter seems to overwhelm the former. The melodic cells that occur at the outset develop and lengthen as if to emphasise a sense of purposeful exploration.
The form and content of Illuminatio seem to epitomise Tüür’s current approach to composition which he describes as ‘vectorial’ , the idea that the whole work derives from a ‘source-code’ ; its melodic ‘gene’ or DNA. In the great scheme of things, one wonders how technically or inspirationally different this is from Vagn Holmboe’s ‘Metamorphosis’ technique, or even Per Nørgård ’s ‘Infinity Series’; indeed I remember a documentary where Peter Maxwell Davies attempted to describe how he used to derive musical material from ‘vector’ like number grids. It went right over my head. The point here is that the structure, form and content of Illuminatio seems to cohere convincingly into a rewarding listen, regardless of technical nomenclature. Its 24-minute span seems not a moment too long. The interplay between soloist and orchestra is meticulously arranged, the conclusion has a real sense of inevitability about it and, despite its delicacy, a real confidence. It’s oddly moving – this quality has intensified in my experience over repeated listens. It’s always a treat to hear Lawrence Power – he seems particularly convinced by this new work and as a critical listener I can only concur, My abiding impression is that Illuminatio represents a significant addition to the viola and orchestra repertoire.
The evocatively titled Whistles and Whispers from Uluru is on the face of it another concerto, albeit one of significantly shorter duration and involving just the strings of the Tapiola Sinfonietta; these basic facts, however, barely scratch the surface. This is a concerto for recorders plural (that’s five – sopranino, treble, alto, tenor and bass). Sometimes the extraordinary soloist Genevieve Lacey plays more than one at a time, sometimes she sings and plays simultaneously; these orchestral and soloistic resources are extended still further by a substantial part for live electronics. Collectively, these forces contrive to produce a dazzling array of colours and textures. In fact Tüür conceived the work as a kind of sonic bridge linking Northern and Southern hemispheres. He produced the piece at his summer residence on the naturally beautiful Estonian island of Hiiumaa, a place rich in bird life. Given the Australian source of the commission, the sacred Aborigine landmark Uluru resonated in his mind, and this lovely work was the outcome. It nails its colours to the mast at the outset. The sopranino recorder builds phrases built on rapid staccato repeated notes, gestures immediately redolent of birdsong. Quite apart from the use of multiple instruments, Lacey’s part is hugely exacting, involving extended techniques such as multiphonics and glissandi. These combine with the electronics and strings to create an almost endless procession of unusual and sometimes haunting effects. Strange percussive sounds emerge as if from nowhere. At times Lacey combines singing and playing to convincingly evoke the didgeridoo. None of these are empty gestures – indeed the timbral variety resulting from these techniques contributes greatly to the success of what is a short, fascinating, but beautifully proportioned work. I detected reminiscences of earlier works in Tüür’s catalogue, especially the minimalist-nspired Insula Deserta, arguably his best known work and an apposite source given the geophysical connotations of this piece. Whispers and Whistles from Uluru, given its brief duration and seemingly complex performance requirements, could have ended up being tokenistic and diffuse. It is neither. That can only be a tribute to the ingenuity of its composer, the dazzling virtuosity of Genevieve Lacey and not least to the superb conducting of Olari Elts, who weaves the contrasting strands of the entire edifice together seamlessly.
It’s fair to say that his role in this recording of Tüür ’s Symphony No 8, Elts’ conducting is also pivotal. I have followed this composer’s symphonic output with great interest over a quarter of a century, ever since I was deeply impressed by an extract from his Symphony No 2, which appeared on Kriss Rusmanis’s revelatory Radio 3 series ‘A Baltic Triptych’ in the early 1990s. All bar the First and recent Ninth have now been recorded. His recent examples all involve elements additional to the orchestra – No. 4 features a percussion soloist, No. 5 a Big Band, No.6 a part for pre-recorded tape and No 7 a choir. This symphony is purely orchestral and was commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. While some of the textures Tüür creates suggest reduced forces, much of the time the casual listener would assume the band here is one of conventional size. It perhaps takes repeated exposure to get to grips with this symphony, but I can report that it is certainly worth the effort. The presence of soloists in the concertante works certainly provides signposts for the listener in navigating them. Their absence here means the symphony requires (and merits) more concentrated attention. It is densely wrought, though cogently argued. Everything stems from the rising ‘knocking’ motif on the marimba which opens the work, and the omnipresence of minor seconds. As the work proceeds, these intervals open out in a wedge-like manner not unlike the later symphonies of Robert Simpson, though Tüür’s more variegated colours and ear for jagged juxtapositions provides a very different, if equally exciting, listening experience. At times in the long first movement there are reminders of the composer’s flirtations with both jazz (as in the Symphony No 5) and rock (he was a founder member of the band In Spe). The percussion writing is the big clue here. The turbulence of the first movement gives way to more exposed chamber textures as the work proceeds. Initially, I found some of the gestures and colours to be reminiscent of those used by Aulis Sallinen in his later symphonies, but greater familiarity with the piece reveals genuine stylistic homogeneity with Tüür’s own previous essays in the form. Indeed, one clear strength of the Symphony No 8 is in the tautness of its argument and its succinctness. The Tapiola Sinfonietta meet its considerable difficulties head-on and Elts’ grasp of its structure is comprehensive.
As ever, the Ondine recording is spacious and detailed and contributes considerably to the spectacular impact of all three works on this terrific disc. Kimmo Korhonen’s notes provide clarity and insight and complement a hugely worthwhile release. Fans of this composer need not hesitate. Newcomers will find much to enjoy.