The smallest-scale events at this year’s Estonian Music Days were a pair of chamber concerts at each end of the festival. Irina Zahharenkova’s keyboard recital at the Arvo Pärt Centre encompassed extremes of musical invention. The most egregious were two works dating from the early 1990s by a Russian guitarist named Michael Buk. There’s no way of sugaring this, they were complete rubbish: the first an overblown attempt at pastiche Romanticism, the second an equally feeble ersatz rendition of a waltz – neither of them displaying the slightest shred of originality or personality. What on earth they were doing in this otherwise quite fascinating concert is impossible to fathom. Though more elegant in presentation, Tõnu Kõrvits’ new harpsichord piece Poems at Moonrise was similarly (though less slavishly) built from borrowed stylistic elements, coming across as gestural and superficial.

By contrast, while Matei Gheorghiu’s Lamento funebre also alluded to extant musical models, and was seemingly powered at its core by a late Romantic sensibility, this was channelled into an altogether more personal and expressively potent language. Gheorghiu’s programme note mentions Beethoven and Chopin, but the way he handled his material brought to mind the more modernist approach of Mahler. Traces of quasi-waltzes could be heard, half lost in a maelstrom of stuff swirling all around them, from which lines emerged and sang. While not remotely incoherent, the music seemed less concerned with pursuing a clear argument than giving vent to an impassioned, spontaneous mode of expression.

The most ambitious and compelling music on the programme came from large-scale, multi-movement works, both receiving their world premières, from two of Estonia’s compositional elder statesmen, Toivo Tulev and Erkki-Sven Tüür. Tüür’s Piano Sonata No. 2, subtitled ‘Saltatio ad Lumen’ (Dance to the Light) explored a conventional three-part structure. The first moved swiftly between a kind of lightly energised nonchalance and an incensed fiery fervour, Zahharenkova slamming down chords and pedal notes as if her life depended on it. The middle movement articulated a very different impulse, no longer driven but tentatively feeling its way, only attaining power and weight with effort, while the finale was a typical Tüür ending, bristling with rhythmic energy, relentless and exuberantly joyous.

Tulev’s music tends toward introspection and seriousness, and his new piece Shining Through, also structured in three parts, was an especially deep dive into this territory. Zahharenkova’s navigation through Tulev’s intricately balanced material was appropriately meticulous, lending the music a curious double perspective: on the one hand, its integrity as a 23-minute, three-movement work was absolute, yet she rendered each movement so convincingly that they almost felt like self-contained compositions. Its tone was somewhat elusive, often bringing together opposites, such as the conflicted opening of the piece, filled with glittering and jarring notes, or paradoxes, as in a sequence filled with activity yet which sounded simultaneously static, like looking into the distance through heavy snowfall. Pitches were often caught in downward trajectories, though Tulev broke this pattern later on through playfulness, eventually enabling the music to dance as if weightless. The work’s conclusion was an apt summation of all that had preceded it, combining light, high filigree with rapidity in the depths and a distant tolling. It was a riveting performance of a complex, captivating work that definitely needs further listens to appreciate more fully.

The final day of the festival included an intimate recital in the House of the Blackheads by violinist Mari Poll and accordionist Momir Novakovic. It was again a concert that mingled the bland with the adventurous, opening with Alisson Kruusmaa’s dull, instantly forgettable …when I rose, I began to see you differently, sun and the energetic but dryly textbook and predictable It takes two to tango by Rasmur Puur. Thankfully, the remaining three works had a whole lot more going for them. Serbian composer Lazar Đorđević’s solo accordion piece Lunar Dust underwent a lovely downward emergence from stratospheric tones, a sudden collapse revealing an unforeseen latent volatility. Peppered with shivers, the music pushed and pulled with real dynamism, before somehow arriving in a marvellous landscape of strange chords.
Elo Masing’s …becoming with…, receiving its first performance, was even more polarised, in terms of both register and behaviour. Violin and accordion came together at a mid-point, both sustained, but Poll and Novakovic kept their relationship nicely ambiguous, playing with the implicit drama such that it was impossible to tell whether they were now connected in a duet or simply adjacent to one another. There were signs of empathy between the instruments, yet despite a subsequent return to meeting in the middle, disconnection appeared to prevail, the two ending up as polarised as they began.

The highlight of this concert was the Sonata for Violin and Accordion by Polish composer Mikołaj Majkusiak. The first of its five movements suggested we were in for a pretty humdrum time, but the second explored slip-sliding close imitation before the middle movement let rip in a dizzying display of close coordination at top speed, like a superfast ballet, Novakovic and Poll becoming twin facets of a single voice. Majkusiak then went to the opposite extreme in the fourth movement, the two still moving together, taking turns to accompany each other, though their slow intensity sounded fraught below the surface. Maybe it was nothing; the finale played out as a rapid romp, violin and accordion again moving in absolute synchronicity and sympathy, in a thrilling conclusion to what turned out to be an unexpectedly engrossing musical adventure.

Momir Novakovic also featured in a mid-week concert interspersing solo accordion pieces between premières of new works by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Lodewijk van der Ree. While it initially seemed a strange idea, the back-and-forth contrast worked surprisingly well, though in general the accordion music made much less of an impression than the choral pieces. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Et exspecto, in particular, seemed almost impenetrable, whereas Arne Nordheim’s Flashing proved much more engaging, moving between fleeting whimsy and hesitant surges. Though reduced in scale from its original version for organ, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Spectrum I sounded superb in this arrangement, often startlingly similar in timbre to organ pipes and demonstrating a lovely balance of meditation and gentle liveliness.

Each of the three choral works shared a primary instinct to explore forms of group behaviour rather than communicate texts. In Tropus nebulosus by Andrus Kallastu the emphasis was on textures created by a multitude of individual lines, united in behaviour but each one unique. This was at its most mesmerising when Kallastu reduced the men’s voices to a vague murmuring underlay over which the women projected more detailed sounds. This individuated approach meant that the ear was constantly being pulled from voice to voice while at the same time listening to the cumulative effect in order to appreciate its twin sense of scope. The work had a nice play of density, especially when the music became thin and sparse, only then to be rapidly filled-in again, the shift sounding highly convoluted.

Arash Yazdani’s Hurreh took a different approach, opting for something between a ritual and a game. Reducing the choir by half to just 12 singers, air noise and sibillance slowly gave way to emergent pitches and choreographed whistling. Then the real action began, a series of tutti swells and dives, patterns spreading from left to right to left, low to high to low, women to men to women, occasionally hitting on unisons that turned out to be unstable yet at no point did the singers sound anything other than utterly unified in intention. i realised after a while i’d stopped thinking of them as a choir but instead as a kind of sonic representation of plastic matter, its form continually bending and contorting into unexpected shapes and angles. Concluding via a remarkable sequence of rhythmic unisons, suddenly transformed into whispers, it was another of the premières at this year’s festival that i immediately wanted to hear again as soon as it had ended.

On Hidden Ways by Jüri Reinvere took a less energetic approach, the choir (now back to full, 24-voice strength) engaged in steady, intense lyricism, with pairs of voices – one female, one male – occasionally extruding from the texture. The timbral nature of the vocal material was always in flux – losing and regaining pitch focus, evaporating into soft breaths, morphing into rolled ‘r’s and vague whistles – to the extent that the presence of pitch came to sound like an accidental artefact rather than something the singers were actively seeking to project. It had the most arresting end of all three choral pieces, coalescing onto an utterly gorgeous series of complex hummed chords, during which time almost seemed to come to a stop.


All three of these concerts are available to video stream via the festival’s EMP TV service, for a small fee, and as free audio via the Klassikaraadio website. Links below:

Irina Zahharenkovaaudio / video
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choiraudio / video
Mari Poll & Momir Novakovicaudio / video


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