This year’s Estonian Music Days focussed to a large extent on composers born within the last 40 years, and this extended to the largest-scale events. The concert given on the penultimate day, by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra directed by Anu Tali, featured world premières from three younger composers alongside a pair of works by more well-established figures. The occasion also saw the inauguration of a new award for Estonian composers, Au-tasu, founded by the LHV Bank, for the best new work performed in the previous calendar year. The first recipient was Liisa Hirsch for her violin concerto Ascending… Descending; the short excerpt preceding the presentation sounded very impressive.

Anu Tali conducts the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra © Peeter Langovits
Anu Tali conducts the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
© Peeter Langovits

Mirjam Tally’s Erosion, a concerto for amplified cello and orchestra with electronics, made the weakest impact of the evening. Tally’s music featured prominently throughout this year’s EMD, yet while exhibiting imagination and compositional enthusiasm, they consistently displayed a lack of surety in how to make ambitious ideas convincingly cohere. There were exceptions, but Erosion sadly wasn’t one of them; the relationships between soloist and orchestra, and acoustic and electronic, were vague – the role of the electronics seemed little more than to add some oomph and reinforce the bass – and while soloist Leho Karin was dauntless conveying his involving, seemingly independent part, signs of a cogent musical argument were all but absent.

Mari Vihmand’s Floreo also struggled, in terms of both coherence and identity. Inspired by notions of flourishing, Vihmand seemed content to pull orchestral shapes formed out of ideas borrowed from the last 75 years. To be fair, she sought more to allude and circumnavigate these borrowings than present them directly, but the resultant patchwork veered between vagueness and an over-dependence on grand gestures. Very much more successful was Maria Kõrvits’ falling up into the bowl of sky, a work taking a short excerpt from a poem by Rūmī as the starting point for a fascinating, constantly-evolving kaleidoscope of convoluted textures. Some were so dense they practically allowed no aural foothold, others erupted into a menagerie of fantastical animal calls. The organic nature of this continual flux was thrilling, and it was quite a sight to see the entire string section acting independently in the formation of these massed orchestral fabrics. Kõrvits marshalled things towards a tired, wavering almost-unison at the end; it was a curiously tense kind of apotheosis, but a fitting one for a work that offered a wholly original take on what an orchestra can do.

The ENSO was joined by the six-strong vocal ensemble Estonian Voices – the country’s answer to the Swingle Singers – for Understandards by Ülo Krigul. Taking as its text a cut-and-paste mash-up of lines and phrases from various jazz standards, Krigul’s exploration of the subsequent collisions of sentiments lurched between solemn emotion and unbridled frivolity. The singers throughout acted as a voice of reason/authority, dictating tone, harmony and direction. They initiated some lovely episodes of overlapping repetitions, creating intricate clouds of action elaborated by the orchestra. Krigul’s experience as a film composer also made its presence felt in a wild dithyrambic display that was familiar in style yet teetering at the very brink of control. Ultimately, the depths it tapped into were informed by an undertone of sensuality, brought to the surface in the work’s subdued but undeniably sexy swaggering conclusion.

The concert closed with the last completed work, the Sixth Symphony, of Lepo Sumera, who died in 2000 at the age of 50. Nothing could have prepared one for the emotional onslaught of this piece, which must be regarded as a millennial continuation of the kind of discourse associated primarily with Shostakovich. It’s easy to hear Estonia’s agonising existence etched into the grain of this symphony, from its huge initial contrasts – a soft, beautiful, quasi-instability shoved aside in an almighty, almost militaristic rallying cry – through the immense fury of opposites that fill the first of its two movements. The complex symphonic narrative, sliding into passages of a limbo-like incorporeality, hypnotised by tortured string slitherings, is only partly mitigated by the more delicate second movement. Here we are escorted, Virgil-like, through layers of miasmic activity until a huge climax wipes out almost everything, leaving a weak sustained chord overlaid with the barest glimmer from harp and celesta. Devastatingly moving.

Conductor Anu Tali was remarkable on two counts. Primarily, she resembled Boulez in the deft way she coordinated the players, at times putting down the baton to allow her hands finer and more communicative control, her cool demeanour occasionally erupting with startling energy. As a result, the ENSO was able to handle such diverse repertoire seemingly effortlessly. But she was also strikingly humble, allowing almost all of the applause to go to the composers and players. On both counts, she was deeply impressive.

****1