Erkki-Sven Tuur: Awakening / Reuss, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

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February 2012


It's a good thing people buy the disc before they read the notes. What sane person buys a CD, even one of contemporary music, in order to digest an essay called "Universality, Time and Phenomenology in the Oeuvre of Erkki-Sven Tüür"? Really, life is too short for such garbage, and if Tüür himself believes in this stuff then perhaps most normal listeners should look elsewhere. Happily, we can ignore the pompous twaddle and focus on the music itself, which is quite attractive.

To be sure, the vocal works try very, very hard to be "deep". Awakening mixes liturgical texts with words by various Estonian poets, but happily (for non-Estonian-speaking listeners anyway) we can ignore the words and just concentrate on the emotional ambience of the music itself. Like much contemporary music today, dissonant textures alternate with more consonant harmonies. The general pacing is slow, and Tüür makes an obvious effort to be "transcendental"--but there's little sense of strain and the work's 36 minutes pass without trying the listener's patience. It's quite beautiful.

Tüür's sensitivity to texture is everywhere in evidence in the a cappella setting The Wanderer's Evening Song. Modern choral writing often requires a virtuoso response, and this work is no exception, but the effort proves to be worth it. The text, drawn from poems by Ernst Enno (d. 1934), is yet another super profound concatenation of transcendental imagery, and I have no patience for it. But then, I feel the same way about Wagner's librettos--you may feel differently, and the setting is stunning. Insula deserta, for string orchestra, is a simple work in alternating sections rich in textural contrast. The performances are all splendid, and so is the sound. I do think that Tüür needs to lighten up a bit, but there's no question that he's a composer of real quality, phenomenology be damned.

– David Hurwitz,


Starting out in the world of progressive rock music and becoming a professional composer in the mid-1980s, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s music has been becoming ever more widely recognised, and ever more refined and luminous. This recording stands as a triumphant representative of this progression.

The most recent piece, Awakening, for mixed choir and chamber orchestra, was written as part of Tallinn’s multitudinous activity as European Capital of Culture 2011. The texts are a mixture of Estonian poetry and Latin liturgical words related to Easter. This is a highly approachable score, full of colourful harmonies and transparent textures, as well as having mysterious depths to go along with the more overtly joyful gestures. Some moments are comparable to the kinds of open musical expression of Americans such as John Adams and Steve Reich, and with the strong Estonian choral tradition pushing the piece onwards like wind in the sails of a galleon. This makes for compulsive listening from beginning to end. Tüür himself views awakening as a life-long process. “While composing this piece I lingered deep on the level of instincts and senses... From a musical perspective, this composition can also be viewed as an awakening to the light.” You can’t have an awakening to light without first experiencing the dark, and there are some central minutes of nocturnal chills before we make the final journey. There is no really well defined moment of awakening as such, as Tüür’s impressionistic writing keeps us guessing if we’re looking for a point of climax. The final coda in the last few minutes has some of the most sublime choral writing you could ever wish to hear. By avoiding corny stereotypes and going back in onto the resources of his own past work, Tüür has created a work which is tremendous in its effect.

The Wanderer’s Evening Song for mixed choir was written for the 20 th anniversary of the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and its founder, Toñu Kaljuste. This is a narrative of the wanderer who, to quote Gerhard Lock’s booklet notes, “is bewitched by the sombre silence of the northern woods [and is] longing for home.” This piece is also concerned with a fascination with light and an approach towards blissful ecstasy, using a mixed combination of the romantic poetry of Ernst Enno to create a remarkable journey. Close harmonies, dramatic dissonance and beautifully ethereal atmosphere make this another very special work.

Going backwards in time the final work is the oldest: Insula deserta, which is the string orchestra piece which marked Tüür’s international breakthrough. This has appeared on CD before, including as part of the Virgin Classics ‘Searching for Roots’ series, in this case with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi (Virgin Classics 7243 5 61993-2, 2002). There is little to choose between this version and Daniel Reuss’s as both are excellent, though the Sinfonietta Riga has a closer, more detailed and intimate feel. Exploring “the relationship between fragility and power” is a driving force in the piece, which unites and fragments the orchestra in a variety of ways, punching dramatically or giving voice to the different sections and individual voices within fields of sound.

This release represents a genuine cross-section of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s work, but is by no means a catch-all compilation. If you are new to his expressive and compelling work then I would hope it might be a springboard for discovering more of his pieces, such as the Architectonics series, and an extensive catalogue to be found on the ECM label.

-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ODE 1183-2

  • UPC: 761195118320

  • Label: Ondine

  • Composer: Erkki-Sven Tüür

  • Conductor: Daniel Reuss

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Riga Sinfonietta