PRESS COMMENT

taken from press articles on Baltic music in Britain's papers

Part and Minimalism  -  Nydd Festival  -  Vasks  -  Tuur and Part choral works  -  Tuur's 'Exodus'

Neeme Jarvi on Part, Tuur and Tubin

On Part and Minimalism:


Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten lasts just six and a half minutes and consists for the most part of a descending diatonic scale played by a string orchestra, accompanied by a tolling bell. The rhythm of the top melody follows a 12th-century mode from the Notre Dame school. The shape of the piece resembles a double canon of the 15th-century Flemish school of Ockeghem and Josquin des Pres. It is a solemn dirge, a keening lament that heaves from deep in our primeval past.

Yet the sound of Cantus is startlingly non-historic, almost electronically post-modern in its rolling reverberations and calculated sound-decay. It grips the ear like the crash of waves as well as the heart. Its appearance precipitated a revolution in musical aesthetics - or, depending on your viewpoint, a counter-revolution.
"Why did the date of Britten's death, December 4, 1976, touch such a chord in me?" wondered Part. "I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music . . . and had wanted to meet him personally - and now it would not come to that." Peter Pears, hearing an early performance, dissolved in tears.

Sentimental considerations aside, this was music that was audibly larger than the sum of its meagre and easily played parts. It surmounted time and place, and aspired to some common goal that Part sensed in Britten but could not quite identify. It had, in other words, all the makings of a synthetic work of art that serves as a jumping-off point for new directions.
Part was 42, a former recording engineer at Estonian Radio who rejected Soviet-imposed socialist realism and was searching for a solution that avoided the banal folk tunes of suppressed nationalism. The icy hand of Leonid Brezhnev lay heavy over Eastern Europe and only lunatics dared dream of liberation. Part had demonstrated his abhorrence of official art in a symphony written using outlawed serialist rows, but he soon tired of ascetic modernism and in 1970 turned to older orthodoxies in a Third Symphony rooted in monkish chants and early polyphony.

There followed five years of virtual silence in which the composer groped in the dark for a form that would allow him the means of original self-expression. He immersed himself in Bach, the ur-synthesist of European music, and finally found the mode he was seeking in Cantus. He called it "tintinnabuli style", the ringing of a bell providing the musical structure for a chorus of strings.

But what Part had discovered was more momentous than the end of his personal block, blown away by the outpouring of Fratres and Tabula Rasa, fresh works for string orchestra without bells. The answer he had found in Cantus was simplicity - or, to give its trendier Western name, minimalism - a style of music that relies on protracted repetition of a small group of notes.

Minimalism had begun in California in May 1965 with a piece called In C, in which Terry Riley led a group of friends in a trance-like chant around a single note. It expressed revulsion at the over-sophistication of symphonic music, along with smokier, psychedelic undertones. Riley's idea was taken up by Steve Reich and Philip Glass, challenging the dead-hand dominance of tuneless serialism in contemporary music, a revolt against cultural dictatorship.

Part had reached the same destination by an opposite route, demonstrating that the world of music is round and free-flowing, no matter what barriers are erected on its political borders. Part's minimalism, however, differed from the American model in one significant respect. It possessed and proclaimed a spiritual ethos that arose from the recognition of God's rule on earth. It was, for its time, unfashionably religious. Britten would have been uncomfortable with its message.
Detractors christened it "holy minimalism", but over the next two decades it gave rise to a trend that transformed the musical landscape. Feeling, faith and meaning had been banished by the post-war avant-garde. Part, in Cantus, relegitimised that lost trinity. In doing so, he lit the candle that fed the flame that swept away the style dictators.

As Part was writing Cantus in Tallinn, a disabled composer in the polluted Polish town of Katowice was finishing a symphony of blatantly simplistic appeal. Henryk Mikolai Gorecki's Third Symphony was performed in France in 1977 to general mystification. A dozen years later, recorded by an American soprano and a British orchestra, it became the first million-selling symphony.

Also in 1977, an English composer, John Tavener, found his mature style after becoming a convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Twelve years later, his rapt concerto for cello and orchestra, The Protecting Veil, was an instant hit at the Proms. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died, it was to Tavener's contemplations that England turned, not so much for the specificity of religious consolation as for the luxury of feeling and meaning, a musical sensation released by Part in Cantus.
Part emigrated in 1980 and settled in Berlin. Bald and bearded, he became one of the most recognisable of living composers. The revolution that he started may have run its course but Cantus, for all its brevity, was a necessary corrective to an art that was going nowhere. Part was a prophet whose message brought music back to its senses. "I have discovered," he once said, "that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played."


Norman Lebrecht in the Daily telegraph   (top of page)

On a concert of Part and Tuur Choral and orchestral music (touring Britain 1999):


Arvo Part, now 53, has become something of a New Age icon, the plain figures of his "mystic minimalism" chiming well with the body of taste that has reacted against the excesses of Modernism, as indeed Part turned from his own earlier serialism. Tuur, who was born in 1959, seems to be evolving towards the same ecstatic spirituality. His brief Passion for strings (1993), begins with simple phrases, low in cellos and basses, butthen grows more and more animated as folk-like fragments gradually lift the focal point of the texture. The music, whose modal contours give it an ageless quality, is intensely beautiful and does not seem to resist the onset of dissonance in the first violins: on its first encounter with this sign of ugliness, it dies away in pained silence.

Tuur's Requiem (1994) inhabits the same austerely ecstatic soundworld. Again, it grows from an opening low in the chorus, the strings weaving increasingly frantic commentary around the vocal lines as they move up to the first climax at "Tuba mirum", with the piano now adding a manic commentary and the sopranos and mezzos interjecting a few brief shrieks that recall the shamanistic music of his countryman, Veljo Tormis - this being the first time that this has sounded so explicitly Estonian. The choir outlines a dislocated chorale before silence suddenly crashes in, and the solo soprano movingly intones the "Recordare". The choir slowly re-establishes the onward movement, ignoring the piano which suggests that one of Messiaen's exotic birds had perched on Tuur's score. Again, a dip into calm growth as the music moves towards the great cry of "Requiem eternam" that crowns the whole work; it fades to nothing and a single triangle stroke kisses it farewell.

Some of Arvo Part's music seems to re-stir the soup: instead of evolving, his style is simply re-applied to the next piece. The result is unfailingly beautiful, but one can sometimes have the feeling of having been here before as in his Trisagion (for strings) of 1992/95.

His Litany of 1994 is much more impressive. An English setting of 24 short prayers of St John Chrysostom, for solo quartet (here, the pure- toned Hilliard Ensemble), chorus and chamber orchestra, it builds very carefully: moving down the solo voices (with answering chorus) one by one, then two by two, then three and four, at which point choir and orchestra are allowed their first climax. All the while, the music remains as plain and affecting as a hermit's cell. Though Part allows the chorus more freedom of action in the second half, he is still keeping his powder dry. Then the accumulated energy is released in a thrilling climax as the text calls for God to do His will, the music ringing and swinging in exultant phrases that the hairs on the nape of your neck on end. Finally, a gentle epilogue lays it all to rest.

Martin Anderson in The Independent    (top of page)

On the Nydd Festival:

Tallinn's week-long Nyyd festival (it means "Now" in Estonian), which has recently ended, presented an exciting blend of contemporary music, home-grown and imported. Tallinn may not seem the obvious place to head for in the dark days of November, particularly when moving from one concert hall to the next means inching forward on treacherously icy pavements. Though, almost of necessity, festivals of contemporary music often display a dismal amount of nonsense tucked in among the discoveries, the rubbish quotient of Nyyd '99 was remarkably low.


Nyyd '99, the sixth festival since it was founded in 1991, was book-ended with British elements: the Swingle Singers in the opening concert, in a touchstone of musical modernism, Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (its Estonian premiere) and two orchestral pieces by Mark-Anthony Turnage in the closing event. York Holler, perhaps the most consistently impressive of German modernists, gave two talks and was treated to a sparkling recital of his chamber music by the Reval Ensemble - who afterwards thanked the delighted composer for stretching their techniques. The Ensemble Court-circuit flew in from Paris with a heady bouquet culled from the gardens of IRCAM: Tristan Murail's La Barque Mystique and the expansive Vortex Temporum by the late Gerard Grisey.


It was the Estonians who impressed the most. The new Violin Concerto of Erkki-Sven Tuur (born 1959), with the big-toned Isabelle van Keulen as soloist, displayed the engaging symphonic minimalism that is typical of Estonia, with snippets of tunes dancing their way towards a relatively clear harmonic goal; it was prefaced in that opening gig by the first performance of Thawing, an orchestral fantasy by the even-younger Helena Tulve.


Tulve's idiom is colder than Tuur's, with something of the formal elegance and emotional reserve of her northern neighbour, the Finn Kaija Saariaho, whose turn in the spotlight came later on in the week, when the virtuoso Finnish Avanti! chamber orchestra brought a programme of four recent pieces straight in from Britain's Huddersfield Festival.

The good humour which is a notable element of Estonian music bubbled to the surface in the first performance of Raimo Kangro's opera The Heart - a witty two-acter about an unscrupulous doctor who experiments with his patients (among them a pianist with 16 fingers), and who gets his come-uppance in a surprisingly jolly stage massacre. Everyone involved - orchestra, conductor, even the front-of-house old ladies selling programmes - was wearing green clinical masks and gowns; the conductor, Paul Magi, began conducting the chirruping dance rhythms of the score with a scalpel. And - in a touch of financial resourcefulness which will astonish arts fund-raisers in Britain - the production of the opera was underwritten by a hospital, one whose administrators obviously have a black sense of humour.


The high point of Nyyd '99 came at its still, calm centre: a concert under the massive medieval dome of St Nicholas's church in Tallinn's gorgeous Old Town. It breathed the religious mysticism that Part has made synonymous with Estonian music, with music by Part himself and fellow mystics from nearby lands - the Russians Alexander Knaifel and Viktor Suslin, the Georgian Giya Kancheli and the Ukrainian Galina Grigorieva, all of them performed by the early-music ensemble, Hortus Musicus, conducted by one of Estonia's most impressive musical phenomena, the violinist, flautist, lecturer and writer (and much else) Andres Mustonen.


Two of the works were premieres: a moving new arrangement of Part's The Beatitudes, beautifully sung (in English) by the Old Town Choir, their delicate textures taken up in the dramatic coda by the huge sounds of the St Nicholas organ; and Grigorieva's On Leaving, for a flute-rich instrumental ensemble - an exquisite meditation in which central Asia meets the Middle Ages.


It is now time to hear the best of this music further west. Kangro's The Heart ought to be translated into English to allow it a life on stage over here - it is not often that opera audiences get a chance to laugh out loud. Tuur's Violin Concerto would be a roaring success at the Proms. And Paul Goodwin's attempts to revitalise the repertoire of the Academy of Ancient Music (he has been commissioning new pieces from composers such as John Tavener) suggest that he would be delighted to discover Grigorieva's On Leaving - I certainly was.

Martin Anderson in The Independent.   (top of page)

On Vasks 2nd Symphony:

Peteris Vasks talks rapidly, as if time is running out. His interpreter can barely keep up. The Latvian composer used not to talk at all, of course. Only in the past several years, since Latvia became independent, have we been able to hear his voice and his music. And before 1991 his music was all songs without words. 'The KGB,' he says, 'could control literature and cinema, but they couldn't understand instrumental music.'

His first Symphony for Strings, significantly subtitled Voices, was written between 1990 and 1991, at the height of Latvia's struggle for independence. Its three movements, Voices of Silence, Voices of Life and Voices of Conscience, along with the newly discovered music of Gorecki, Arvo Part and other Baltic contemporaries, spoke out urgently, with a fragile optimism radiating their sorrowful songs. And it made the charts.

Now the BBC has commissioned Vasks to write a Second Symphony which will receive its world premiere at the Proms on Friday. From the only lightly veiled Message of 1982 to the exhortatory Lauda of 1986, Vasks's music has always spoken of a particular time, a particular place. Now, ten years on, in an independent Latvia, what will be the message of this new symphony?

'More than ever before, I'm conscious of a twofold inspiration,' Vasks says. 'The sense that I stand and have my being in this still corrupt but intensely beautiful land. And that my spirit and soul are always looking beyond it...'

Vasks's music characteristically grows out of and returns to a state of silence. Here, though, the new symphony begins with an explosion of fortissimo. 'We're all thrown into this highly charged drama together. But the second idea is a quiet one - an image of eternity, of dream. In music there is still a chance to express an ideal world, to glance at a beauty which it is difficult to see in everyday life.'

As the symphony nears its end, there is a reference to a Latvian folk song. 'A sense of light-filled sorrow - that's the best way to put it. I can't leave my listeners without a breath of hope, a breath of eternity. I love my country and this world too much to do that.'

Yakov Kreizberg, who conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Vasks's new symphony, has long championed his music. 'In today's complex world of contemporary music, Vasks's voice is one of honesty and sanity. He isn't trying to prove anything: his music is a totally honest expression of how he sees the world today.'

For Vasks, although the threat of occupation in his country may for the time being have receded, the future is fragile. 'I feel it's my life's work to awaken people. I don't believe, as I used to, that music can change the world. But the world exists in a very delicate balance, and music can help to hold it in equilibrium.'

Hilary Finch in The Times    (top of page)

On Jarvi's recording of Part, Tuur and Tubin's music

Now that Estonia has reclaimed its freedom, some of those emigres are, in their turn, reclaiming their heritage or, as a new CD of Estonian music titles itself, "searching for roots". The collection presents one emigre, Paavo Jarvi, conducting music by two others: the 11th Symphony which Eduard Tubin left unfinished at his death in 1982; and two early works  from the Sixties by Arvo Part, Nekrolog and the First Symphony, both of which offended Soviet orthodoxy with their "decadent" espousal of serialism.

If these works look to the past, Jarvi's anthology hints at the future by including three other pieces by Erkki-Sven Tuur, a younger composer (born 1959) who has lived in Estonia all his life, and whose Searching for Roots give the CD its title. For Jarvi, there's a thread - "a sort of spiritual connection" - uniting all three men: "Tubin was a great symphonist," he explains, "a godfather for Estonian music of this century. Part was influenced by him; they were in a way spiritual brothers, which Part acknowledged by dedicating one of his series of pieces called Fratres to Tubin after his death. Part himself became a kind of guru to the next generation, including Erkki-Sven Tuur.

So there is an obvious line of succession." Tuur acknowledges that legacy, but is not bound by it: "Tubin and Part had the same teacher, Heino Eller, who also taught both my composition professors, Lepo Sumera and Jaan Raats. So you might treat the music on this CD as the output of one 'school'. But I dislike these umbrellas, and I'm going, absolutely consciously, along my own way. Part certainly prepared the way for contemporary Estonian music, and in the late 1970s his magnificent Tabula rasa influenced many of us, and I include myself. Now, though, a younger generation has emerged, and there is a variety of different styles, so we  can't say that the Part style dominates."

Shortly after recording the CD last year with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (of which he is principal guest conductor), Paavo Jarvi returned to Estonia to conduct an Estonian orchestra for the very first time. It was also the first time he'd ever worked with an orchestra in Estonian. "It was an important moment for me. I felt anxious and nervous. These musicians had known me since I was five - I grew up watching them rehearse with my father. But the orchestra was very good, and I felt good, physically and mentally. That trip was the first of what I hope will be frequent visits there."

More recently, Jarvi took up the post of principal guest conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. One  of the first pieces he conducted with them was Tuur's Zeitraum (the closing item on his new CD) and there is a liberal scattering of Nordic composers in his repertoire. This is clearly a point of policy: "People outside the Nordic countries simply don't consider them a real part of Europe. At best they're distant provinces: I'm still asked if there is ever any summer there. Now they're making a strong effort to have a more European, a more international presence. In terms of music, it helps that there are so many Nordic artists making a name for themselves: composers, conductors, performers - they command attention. And it's not superficially created, as can happen in France, Britain or Germany, where there is the geographical muscle to create that kind of national presence."

At the same time, Jarvi won't be pigeonholed: "I have nothing against being considered a Nordic musician. In fact, I'm very proud of it. But I will not restrict myself to Nordic repertoire. Arvo Part is Estonian, but to call his music Nordic is misleading, nor should we look for anything particularly Estonian in his music. I hear it simply as Arvo Part. Yet Estonia has always had a strong musical culture. Perhaps it's because a certain cultural heritage was carried over from the Germans, the Swedes, the Danes, the Russians. In any case, Estonian musical life has always looked westwards, even during the Soviet era."

It's a point echoed by Tuur: "My first musical experience was with a group I set up in 1979, In Spe, playing what I called 'chamber rock'. That was a good laboratory for a beginning composer, to have an idea one evening, and take it into rehearsal the next day, to test how it really worked. Then I went to the Tallinn Conservatory, where I had good teachers who were very open to Western musical culture, insofar as they could find out about it: it was hard to see scores, but it was possible to get recordings. So in the early 1980s I was influenced by Ligeti and Xenakis as well as by Reich and Glass. I'm still keen on remaining open to all possibilities as a way towards a personal style: I enjoy moving between simpler, more tonal structures, and complex atonal passages, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly, but consistently."

With commissions coming in from all sides (David Geringas recently premiered his Cello Concerto in Lausanne), and his music recorded on several labels (ECM as well as EMI), Tuur has benefited from Estonian music's higher visibility in the West: "If economic structures change, then so does cultural life. Nobody in the West can understand the absurdity we had to live with in Soviet times. For one thing, we couldn't invite foreign artists: all that was controlled from Moscow. Now, in an open society, the arts are developing in another way: artists find they are responsible to quite different criteria. Although there are always problems in getting money, there are more possibilities for financial support. Our government understands that, with a population of only a million or so, such a small nation can only be great through its culture. That's a real national value."

Jarvi, meanwhile, draws a parallel between Estonia's "Singing Revolution" and Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution". "They were both bloodless, a smooth transition, people showing their will in a way that was nationalistic and cultural yet without  confrontation. I read that the Czech Republic and Estonia are now the fastest growing, most dynamic of the ex-Soviet satellite states. That's an interesting similarity. Even so, nobody is going to be amazed by Estonia's business, the volume of its industrial production: there simply aren't the human resources. What will put the Baltic countries on the map are the arts."

Nick Kimberley in The Independent  (top of page)

On Tuur's 'Exodus'

Tuur is one of a number of distinctive new voices to have emerged from the Baltic states since perestroika, though until now his orchestral music has been best known here through recordings. Largely self-taught, he ran a rock band in Estonia in his 20s, while also studying composition at the Tallinn  Academy, and his music seems the product of a mind not over bothered by the dogmas of style and language. It's dense, highly wrought stuff, which nevertheless carries quite a big emotional  charge.

Each life, taken separately, is an exodus, Tuur says, and his piece is `a composer's subjective sound image of a force that can defeat the undeniable'. With or without that extra-musical background, it is still a hugely impressive achievement, packing a great deal into its 17-minute span, which maintains a constant pulsing until the very last few moments. But Exodus isn't at all a minimalist score - the busy figuration is constantly cross-cut with other rhythms and melodic profiles picked out against it, gradually accumulating momentum and tension, until it all explodes in a massive climax to which a drum-kit adds an anarchic edge.

After that the textures thin, the motion calms down and only melodic fragments remain; a lonely Shostakovich-like melody wanders aimlessly for a few moments, and the piece evaporates in a haze of string chords. The plotting of this trajectory is very confident, and there's something almost physical about the way in which Tuur moves and shapes the sound masses that his textures generate, so that the music offers a variety of perspectives - on one level the intricate construction offers constantly changing patterns and arrays, on another the sheer weight of sound is sculpted into large-scale gestures, so that the ear switches from one to the other. Intriguing stuff.

Andrew Clements in The Guardian  (top of page)