The 10 Symphonies of Erkki-Sven Tüür – Part 3: Symphonies Nos. 6-9

The 10 Symphonies of Erkki-Sven Tüür - Part 3: Symphonies Nos. 6-9

This text is an expanded version of the article originally published (in Estonian translation) by Sirp, 16 September 2022.

Having featured them prominently in his Fourth and Fifth symphonies, Erkki-Sven Tüür does away with soloists in Symphony No. 6 (2007), but he continues the more nuanced approach to juxtaposition heard in those previous two symphonies. The work bears the subtitle ‘Strata’, and indeed there is the impression of moving through a series of different layers. In this context, the effect of the juxtapositions is less volatile and more organic, producing an episodic music where the orchestra acts as a single, sympathetic entity.

Erkki-Sven Tüür

However, if that suggests a lessening of intensity then what follows, if anything, does the complete opposite. After this measured opening, Tüür begins what will become the main sequence of the symphony (initiated by the strings) where, over the course of around 15 minutes, the orchestra continually pushes and pulls in multiple directions. The result is a stop-start motion in which the strings’ material keeps getting interrupted, causing them either to restart or just attempt to plough on regardless, all the time becoming increasingly surrounded by a relentless barrage of contrasting ideas, primarily in the form of pounding timpani (threatening to explode but always subsequently defused), heavyweight brass and percussion, and excitable xylophone clatter. Though the enormous length of this sequence to some extent reduces its power – eventually causing one to feel somewhat numb – it again testifies to Tüür’s fearlessness in channelling extreme juxtapositions into enormous slabs of sound.

Yet the most striking contrast of all comes in the symphony’s conclusion, Tüür pulling everything back and introducing an innocuous pivoting motif in the cellos. This motif persists, becoming the basis for an obsessive, rather mournful conclusion, evoking a wailing song of the indigenous Seto people. The contrasts continue until the end, Tüür moving back and forth between the outworking of this motif and small bursts of glitter.

Symphony No. 6 ‘Strata’ was released by ECM in 2010, in a recording by the Nordic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anu Tali.

Symphony No. 7 (2009) is, to date, Tüür’s only symphony to include voices. Subtitled ‘Pietas’ and dedicated to the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, the work’s text draws on short proverb-like quotations from, among others, Buddha, Gandhi, Augustine of Hippo and, unexpectedly, Jimi Hendrix. Perhaps due to the earnest nature of the work, addressing concepts of love and compassion, both the scope and the intensity of its juxtapositions are simplified. Throughout all four movements, Tüür’s musical language oscillates between floridity – once again taking the form of lively, individuated wind textures – and solemnity, the latter (performed by strings and brass) intended by Tüür to “seemingly halt the flow of musical time”. Throughout the symphony these behavioural opposites interpenetrate each other, leading to fascinating states of change and internal tension. In the third movement, in particular, the various forces at play create a kind of semi-immobile chugging, which only starts to find its way back to freedom when both elements let rip at once, resulting in a mesmerising combination of gravity and weightlessness.

However, it could be argued that the most prominent contrast in Symphony No. 7 is the relationship between choir and orchestra. Put simply: is there one? The voices are situated between these behavioural poles, articulating the words with a mixture of force and gentleness. Yet the choral passages tend to feel disconnected from the musical drama happening around them, a more neutral intrusion into an otherwise energised and engrossing instrumental environment. This sense is reinforced by the minimal use of the choir in the first three movements (indeed, they are completely absent in the third). They feature prominently in the symphony’s 20-minute final movement, the orchestra now channelling its twin identities to support and embellish the choir, though the litany of quotations sounds like a parallel world from what preceded it. Furthermore, when the music refocuses on the orchestra in the lengthy centre of this movement, it sounds like a natural continuation and conclusion of the polarities explored earlier. Perhaps it’s a controversial suggestion, but if the vocal sections were removed entirely, Symphony No. 7 would be largely unaffected, not merely representing a highly engaging next step in Tüür’s symphonic evolution but, crucially, one where his use of juxtaposition is demonstrably extended into rigorous development.

Symphony No. 7 is featured on another ECM release, from 2014, featuring the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and NDR Choir conducted by Paavo Järvi.

There are distinct echoes of the opening of the Sixth Symphony in Tüür’s Symphony No. 8 (2010). Again there’s the impression of an orchestra generally working together on a number of discrete ideas, here presented less as moving episodically through strata than halting attempts to ‘road-test’ a variety of possible options. (In my 2018 review i commented on this “chop-and-change approach” being “as if Tüür were playing with ideas on the fly, trying them out … in different configurations.”) Tüür’s fondness for textural clouds of wind activity makes its presence felt yet again, though as part of an overall tendency to floridity in all parts of the orchestra. Combined with the highly elastic way that the piece moves forward, this leads to a highly organic music that appears to be working out what to do in real time, ultimately shrugging off superficially jaunty ideas in favour of more serious melodic searching.

In the central movement this searching splits to form a number of interlinked lines that come together in a hugely impactful climax. The build-up to this is notable for being so focused, single-minded and united, lacking the conflicts that usually typify Tüür’s materials. The symphony ends with another split, negotiating between slow-moving, thoughtful string lines and woodwinds that seemingly just want to get the party started. Instead of picking a side, Tüür resolves this – after what sounds like a tutti shrug – by throwing both elements together, surprisingly proving them to be complementary, launching the symphony into a punchy finale where rhythms are positively festooned with wind cascades.

Symphony No. 8 was released in 2018 on the Ondine label, in a performance by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Olari Elts.

There then followed a symphonic hiatus of seven years, the biggest since the decade-long gap between the Second and Third, before Tüür’s next – and, at present, penultimate – symphony. In his Symphony No. 9 (2017), Tüür returned to the most basic types of contrasting materials heard in the earliest symphonies. The work is initially founded upon the simple juxtaposition of vagueness and clarity, the former heard in nebulous networks of rumbles, micro-gestures and superimposed trills, the latter in a string line that turns out (once other instruments provide support) to be the impetus for energy and rhythm.

As i discussed at length in my review of the symphony’s première in 2018, in keeping with the evolution of Tüür’s symphonic language, there is again a strong organic sensibility, one that draws directly on the work’s subtitle, ‘Mythos’, to suggest world-building, of a landscape being constructed from primordial elements. At times the music doesn’t even seem composed, but a spontaneous chain reaction of sonic elements, with new ideas and reactions continually bubbling to the surface, some going nowhere, others proving to be extremely significant. In this respect, Symphony No. 9 was Tüür’s most intricate, detailed symphonic score to date, focusing much less on the contrasts that typify so many of the earlier symphonies, and instead rethinking their extended sequences of overload (as in Symphony No. 6), here directed towards music in a constant, wildly creative state of flux.

The world première performance of Symphony No. 9 ‘Mythos’, by the Estonian Festival Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi, was released on the Alpha label in 2020.

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