Action, Passion, Illusion by Anu Tali: CD Cover

Nordic Symphony Orchestra

conductor Anu Tali

Tüür Zeitraum

Sibelius The Wood Nymph Op. 15

Tüür Action.Passion.Illusion

Rachmaninoff Three Russian Songs

Warner Classics 2005



Anu Tali’s previous disc, reviewed here back in 2002, was highly impressive, featuring well-known music by Sibelius and Debussy, but also works by her Estonian compatriot Veljo Tormis.  In this latest issue, she extends her repertoire to take in the younger generation of Estonian composers, represented by the very talented Erkki-Sven Tüür, still in his mid-forties.  The orchestra is the same as previously, but the Estonian-Finnish Symphony Orchestra has now been re-named, more snappily, as the Nordic Symphony Orchestra; it remains the creature of Tali and her sister Kadri, who is the orchestra’s manager.

Tüür’s Zeitraum (“Time-Space” might be an approximate translation) occupies the first track on the disc.  After a rather predictably snarling opening (how many recent European orchestral works project this sort of generalised dystopia?), it gradually establishes a real momentum gained from the opposition of different musical ‘movements’ – big slow-moving dissonant piles, glittering tuned percussion, energetic string music strongly reminiscent of Steve Reich. As so often with contemporary music, it proceeds by a series of striking gestures, but, although the work is too short to fully work these out, there is a sense of culmination, and a feeling that the composer really has something to say.

That same rather grim persona is present in parts of Action Passion Illusion, whose three movements occupy tracks three to five. But the more economical forces – strings only rather than the very large orchestra for Zeitraum – and the three-movement structure seem to have inspired the composer to give us more variety, and to reveal more of himself in the process.  Action is, as the title would lead you to expect, a dynamic, energetic movement, which owes much to Bartók, Stravinsky and other modern masters of string writing.  It is also clearly tonal, though the key-centres are often obscured by clusters of dissonance.  The ‘fade-out’ ending is cunningly achieved.

The opening of Passion seems anything but passionate – melodic phrases slowly unwinding out of mirky depths.  But Tüür is thinking long-term, and the music builds up inexorably, again establishing definite tonal centres, which appear regularly like landmarks through a dense mist.   As the climax is reached, the tightly controlled lines explode, or disintegrate into a teeming cloud, which then softly resolves.  A wonderful movement this, and a fine use of the infinite potential for texture that exists within the medium of the string orchestra. 

Illusion is more conventional, and listeners will no doubt, like me, discern influences from a variety of sources.  But that is no bad thing, indeed it’s refreshing to find a young (ish) composer with his own distinctive voice who is yet prepared to place himself firmly within a tradition.

The Sibelius is an early oddity about which there is little to say, except that it betrays a certain haste in its composition; there are long patches in the music where, frankly, very little happens.  Lovers of the Karelia Suite will instantly recognise the authentic voice of early Sibelius in the horn-calls of the opening, however odd the piano may sound in the background!  The music of the forest, though, as the hero Björn falls under the spell of the Wood Nymph, is genuinely magical.

The Rachmaninov choral songs are a rather different matter.  Written in the 1920s in the USA, they seem to reflect the composer’s unquenchable nostalgia for his native Russia.  The lush orchestration (listen to the echoes of Debussy’s Sirène at the start of number one) and rich harmonies are in reality completely at odds with the ingenuous and unremarkable folk verses which form the text.  The choral forces are peculiar; no sopranos or tenors, basses only in the first song, altos only in the second, while in the third, these two voices sing mostly in octaves.

The producers were probably right to select Action Passion Illusion as the title of this disc; it is the most engaging and interesting work here.  As a whole, though, I couldn’t shake off a sense of slight disappointment in the choice of music that makes up the programme.  Nonetheless, the standard of the performing is high – the strings of the Nordic Symphony Orchestra are particularly impressive in their piece – though the tone of the Latvian State Choir basses and altos does leave a little to be desired, as does their slight tendency to sing under the note.    Gwyn Parry-Jones


(---)That said, all the performances are stylish and full of the requisite intensity. Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür’s works emerge particularly well. After fooling us for a minute or two that we’re about to hear a fairly typical piece of Penderecki-inspired modernism, Zeitraum soon discovers a chanting lyricism, plus exciting rhythmic impulses and harmonies that are definitely easier on the ear. Action Passion Illusion is more straightforward, more directly appealing and – especially in the impressive brooding central slow movement – more convincing. Anu Tali seems very sure of her way through all these works, keeping a firm hold on the reins in the Sibelius, but allowing Rachmaninov to luxuriate a little more in his Slavic melancholy.(---)

BBC Music Magazine  Stephen Johnson 


(...) Tüür (born in 1959) is currently the leading figure in Estonian music, following in the footsteps of Tobias, Tubin, Eller, Sumera, and Pärt. His style is a fascinating combination of minimalism, polyrhythms, atonality, and traditional triad-based harmony. He uses traditional melodic material regularly but not consistently, and has a wonderful sonic imagination. Action Passion Illusion (there is no punctuation between the titles, which the composer gives in English) is in three movements, and is written for string orchestra. Action has a neo-Classical feel and a lively dance rhythm. Passion is utterly remarkable—music of deep spirituality and highly original colors. Tüür writes that the movement “is built from the slow filling of space,” and that’s a perfect description. It reminds one of Arvo Pärt’s mystical style— without resorting to copying it. Illusion returns to a more energetic mood, again reflecting that neo-Classical idiom. Zeitraum will jar conservative listeners more strongly than Action Passion Illusion, with its tone clusters and extraordinarily wide dynamic range, dramatic sense of orchestral color, and almost ferocious energy. Both of these are strong pieces, but Action Passion Illusion strikes me as something really special. It may have a lasting value in the repertoire for the long haul, if it is given enough exposure to catch on. (...) Tali ranges from the warmly lyrical to the incisive, from the large-scale to the intimate, without ever breaking the arch of the music.

Fanfare Magazine, Henry Vogel