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Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Whistling Desert-Fowl

Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

The Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür is one of those composers whose music is both uncompromisingly modern and above-average accessible. He roughly follows the line of fellow, compatriot symphonist Eduard Tubin (1905-1982) and Finnish “Fauvist” Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016). Tüür is up to eight symphonies by now, which makes him one of the more prolific symphonists of our time. Fortunately he’s also one of the more interesting ones, with a composing-style nearly as heterogeneous as Alfred Schnittke’s. While liberally dipping into jazz and rock as influences, Tüür never falls into the treacherous shallows of “crossover”. Collage–yes; elevator music–no. With his second-most recent symphony, the Seventh (along with the piano concerto), being among my favorite discs in 2014 (ECM), I anticipated this Eighth (2010)–along with the viola concerto (Illuminatio, 2008) and a flute concertino (Whistles and Whispers from Uluru)–all the more.

The viola concerto, instigated by violist Lars Anders Tomter and here performed by the exquisite Lawrence Power, rises from nebulous depths and piles up dissonant planes and lines like ice sheets that are eventually broken up by percussion and the glockenspiel. The action increases in the second movement, where blocks of soloist activity juxtapose with xylophone elements. The third movement sees some vehement hammering and strenuous “violing” as if the concerto struggled to work toward the fourth-movement Finale. That’s where Power’s deeply musical virtuosity gets to shine especially, before being run down by the increasingly powerful orchestra and the concerto eventually ending–quietly, exhaling.

The Eighth symphony may be written for chamber orchestra–the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, to be precise–but neither in length (25 minutes) nor style is it a chamber symphony. The symphony appears as a dark cauldron with hammered strokes bubbling up here and intermittent mini-climaxes there. All until a folksy waltz-in-disguise sneaks in and reminds, distantly, of Shostakovich. Admittedly, not much more seems to be happening than that–although the final apotheosis is most appreciable. The three continuous movements are punctuated with heavy percussion–but if you want that to come through on this recording, you will have to crank your amp to 11.

Whistles and Whispers from Uluru (2007) is the Estonian view of the Australian outback. It’s a flute concertino (Genevieve Lacey playing all the required instruments, which go beyond the extended flute-family all the way to the didgeridoo) with aboriginal color painted on its surface in which much chortling and gurgling goes on. Impressionable, imaginative ears might hear a forest with chilled nocturnal birds or whistling desert-fowl. Amid this, the once-upon-a-time prog-rocker Tüür doesn’t shy away from using a drum kit to enliven the texture. It’s all colorful and atmospheric stuff and then it gurgles once more and it’s all over. This nominally least-weighty piece on the disc turns out to be a bit of a show-stealer.

It mightn’t be so relatively successful, though, if the recorded sound were different: As it is, the Tapiola Sinfonietta under Olari Elts is caught in very bright and light sound. Much of what ought to be heard rising from the real depths of this music–particularly in the viola concerto–isn’t noticed until it arrives at the surface. Comparison with a recording of the dedicatee Tomter and the Estonian NSO (also under Elts) is telling, even in otherwise shoddy YouTube mp3-sound: This piece could and should sound different; more overtly impressive, with greater profundity and more of an edge to it. The neat transparency of the Ondine recording, top-notch for what it is, doesn’t cut it for these works–and that makes this promising recording a bit frustrating.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

    Illuminatio (Viola Concerto); Whistles and Whispers from Uluru (Flute Concertino); Symphony No. 8

    Soloists: Lawrence Power (viola); Genevieve Lacey (flutes)

    Tapiola Sinfonietta, Olari Elts

  • Record Label: Ondine - 1303-2
  • Medium: CD

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