Nguyên Lê   electric guitar

Mika Väyrynen    accordion

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Olari Elts     conductor

Symphony No 5 (2004)

Accordion Concerto "Prophecy" (2007)

Recorded June / October 2013

Ondine  ODE12342


Faced with the unusual commission for a large-scale symphonic work for orchestra and big band, Estonia’s leading symphonist decided to make things even more challenging by adding ‘improvisational layers’ for rock guitarist. Given his own roots as a rock musician, this was anything but an opportunistic gambit, and the unlikely mix generates the kinds of tensions – large-scale as well as on the surface – of which fine symphonies are made. This one lasts close on 40 minutes and shadows the traditional four-movement design, not out of laziness but clearly because that’s what the material itself demands. The sonic components meet on the level of elementalised sound-blocks and motivic shapes, go their separate ways, clash and congeal, in ways that range from the fascinating to the downright spellbinding.

The 20-minute Prophecy for accordion and orchestra is another fine display of harmony and texture melted down to a malleable substance all the composer’s own. Whether the title itself is necessary, I’m not so sure. The piece was conceived as a concerto, and while exhibitionism is clearly subordinate to more serious aims, a concerto is still what it feels like.

Comparisons with Nørgård and Aho are probably beside the point, except to say that if they are your idea of first-rate contemporary symphonists and concerto-writers – as they are mine – you’re likely to find Tüür worthy of their company. And of course if you already know Tüür, this new disc, superbly performed, recorded and annotated as it is, will be self recommending in any case. Ondine does not claim the Symphony as a premiere recording but I’m not aware of any rival; nor does the composer’s website list one.

Gramophone, David Fanning


First, how can you not wonder what a symphony for big band, electric guitar and orchestra sounds like; let alone an accordion concerto?

I have heard a bit of the music of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür before, like his Symphony No.7. I think part of the very eclectic nature of his music is due to the fact that in the early eighties he headed the rock group “In Spe”, which was very popular throughout Estonia.

I must say the Symphony No.5 is truly attention-getting, with an ominous, rather subdued beginning that gives way to some jazz band-like punctuations and what the composer describes as “wavelike currents.” There are little moments in each movement that sound genuinely “big band” and defy inclusion into the work’s actual format, with brass punches and saxophones swirling up and down. I was also very taken back, in a good way, by the sultry, middle-eastern, dense sound of the second movement with its impressive “throwback” guitar cadenza. Honestly, this might not sound at all like a “symphony” but it certainly does capture your attention.

The payoff is really the fourth movement which Tűűr refers to – in a very humorous, good-natured way – as “fans of prog rock rejoice…. the Ultimate Big Bang.” There are moments of guitar improvisation throughout the whole that are quite impressive and kudos to Nguyen Le for his skills!

Prophecy is really a single movement concerto for accordion and orchestra and contains many of the composer’s swirling, moody colors. There are three movements interconnected each of which reflect, according to the booklet notes and comments from Tűűr on forms of “premonitions” – hence the composer’s choice of the title, Prophecy.   What intrigued me about this piece is the use of the orchestra to become an extension of the accordion line in several sections and vice versa; there is some very skilled blending of tone color here. The composer also comments on the societal tradition of ‘prophets’ and keepers of an indigenous culture, for example. Tűűr notes that such people were “respected, disdained, hazardous and kind of mad…” To the composer, this piece is trying to reflect the moods of these cultural traditions.   For me, I am not sure I completely get that analogy but Prophecy is a very entertaining piece.

Erkki-Sven Tüür is absolutely an unusual, eclectic, somewhat bizarre and – maybe – visionary composer. I do not think (in fact, I am sure…) that his music would appeal to just about any listener. However, if you just tune into the sounds and not worry too much about what it means or why it was written thusly I think you would be engrossed. I know I found the Symphony No.5 especially fun to listen to.

My opinion of Tüür ‘s music is better now even than when I first heard it and I am anxious to hear more from this one-of-a-kind artist!   Daniel Coombs 


Q2 Music Album of the Week Nov. 03 2014

Erkki-Sven Tüür's music seizes the ear. He embeds his scores with moments of coloristic and harmonic invention that make the listener sit up and say, wait—what was that? Tüür can take the sound of a choir, or the sound of a symphony orchestra, and transform it into something new, a feat for which he has gained a reputation, outside his native Estonia, as one of that country's most exciting and fascinating composers of classical music.

The composer's Western admirers might not have guessed that he can also cut loose. His new disc on the Ondine label pairs two Tüür works that augment the sound of the symphony orchestra with some slightly unusual collaborators: in the case of  Prophecy,  a new concerto, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra accompanies accordionist  Mika Väyrynen, and in the case of Tüür's Symphony No. 5, they are supplemented by an entire big band – the UMO Jazz Orchestra – and free-improv electric guitarist  Nguyên Lê.

Estonia was already well aware that Tüür knows how to rock. In the late '70s and early '80s, he fronted an excellent and successful prog band, In Spe, which might come as a surprise to listeners familiar with his more sober concert music. But it makes perfect sense: all of his compositions, no matter how abstract, remain open to the audience, and focused on sheer aural pleasure.

And these pieces show that the converse is also true, that no matter how deeply Tüür strays into the vernacular, he never panders or gives in to cliché. No wonder: he knows from experience just how much psychedelic rock and, say, spectralist composition have in common. The Fifth Symphony makes his connections to jazz and rock music more obvious, thanks to the musicians he brings into the fold, but  Prophecy  makes no attempt to shy away from the accordion's sultrier pop-cultural associations as it weaves the sound of the instrument into the rich orchestral texture.

Combined with a born showman's sense of musical drama, the result is a surprising and very different pair of works that manage to be at once bracingly cerebral and vastly entertaining.  

WQXR New York,  Daniel Stephen Johnson




I’ve often wondered why classical composers don’t make more use of the energy of rock music; I should have guessed that a composer who was once a member of a rock group would find nothing unusual in integrating the sound of symphony orchestra, electric guitar and big band – the commission was for a piece for orchestra and jazz big band, but Tüür chose to cast his net wider yet. Even if you hadn’t noticed the scoring of his Fifth Symphony (2004) from the booklet cover, the opening bars would be enough to alert you to the fact that the work, 39 minutes in duration, was going to be enormously resourceful in its orchestration – and that’s before any of the flagged extras have been heard.

At the outset a held trumpet line proves the trigger for waves of colour from different parts of the orchestra, slowly summoned into heaving life by a saxophone sounding like a manic muezzin. This first movement, eight minutes in length ???, unfolds in a series of such waves, triggered by emphatic statements mostly from the brass and the big band, with smaller melodic fragments drifting up and down around them (a fingerprint that Tüür has in common with Magnus Lindberg). The booklet notes, which take the form of a conversation between Tüür and his conductor, Olari Elts, locate the end of the first movement in a powerful, rather orientally tinged cadenza for electric guitar, but the marker for the second track falls before it. Certainly, the contrast between the moody guitar solo and its dense accompanying textures and the light, string-based calm of the following passage is striking, as if we have passed into the eye of the storm. The tranquillity proves to be short-lived as the music becomes more animated, though it remains gently playful in mood – almost a ‘Jeu des vagues’. The sea-surface (to retain the nautical image) heaves with increasing energy, melodic fragments breaking away as spray off the crests of waves, but another period of calm supervenes – the same strange mixture of suspended weight and unspoken power that can characterize the orchestral music of Tüür’s teacher, Lepo Sumera. A drum kit, muted trumpet, sax and solo trumpet announce the arrival of the scherzo and send it driving forwards with irresistible energy – perhaps this is the section which most successfully fuses the diverse styles, maybe because its sheer physical appeal (your feet will tap!) allows no resistance. Suddenly the momentum peters out and the rising and falling, Lindberg-like woodwind figures from earlier in the piece dance uneasily in harmonic suspension. An angular, hesitantly jolly bass figure begins to animate matters and slowly the orchestra begins to stir itself, its violent intent eventually becoming manifest behind a vigorous guitar solo. The energy crests, leaving melodic fragments spinning around as the power dissipates, and it all ebbs away into silence.

Prophecy (2007) is a 20-minute accordion concerto, again in four distinct but conjoined movements which Tüür and Elts discuss one by one, although Ondine has unhelpfully seen fit to deliver the work in a single large track. Mind you, the subdivisions are clear enough in the music itself. The first movement, like that of the Fifth Symphony, expands and contracts in successive waves of sound, the solo part weaving in and out of the texture. A balletic scherzo follows, the accordion and the orchestra flicking ideas at each other, the dancing lines familiar from earlier Tüür pieces (his music has danced since its very beginning), before the slow third movement casts a sleepy spell over the proceedings – one of those occasions when surface restfulness disguises the nervous activity of dreaming. Woodblock rhythms herald the increasingly decisive dance which constitutes the finale, with the solo accordion leaping around like a boxer looking for a chance to land a punch.

According to a comment by Tüür in the booklet, Elts performed the Fifth Symphony eight times before he brought it before the microphones for this recording, which may help explain why his articulation of the structure of the piece is so clear. Mika Väyrynen, whose playing of Bach I have raved about in these pages (see December 2013), plays the concerto he commissioned from Tüür with evident engagement (though Tüür took some time to accept the challenge, as he explains in the notes); and the Helsinki Philharmonic musicians are captured in good sound. Tüür has in common with Lindberg and a handful of other composers the ability to marry a modernist’s palette of colours with the sense of direction of classical harmony, and it is small wonder that the music of both men is played all over the shop these days. This release is a valuable addition to Tüür’s representation on CD, and I commend it to you with enthusiasm. 

International Record Review, Martin Anderson

Big band, electric guitar and symphony orchestra. It’s remarkable how successfully they’re integrated by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür, the jazz band in the opening movement initially reacting in befuddlement to the foreign textures around it, then gradually becoming more riffy and self-assertive. The guitar’s first entry is actually a cadenza, and improvised. It fits musically, though the balance is a touch attention-seeking.

There’s a segue to the glacial string polyphony of the slow movement; the third brings big band improvisation, the finale another fuzz-soaked outing for the guitarist. It sounds as if it should be a shapeless hodge-podge, but remarkably it isn’t, though there are plenty of wild, neo-Ivesian sonorities to be going on with. The performance is admirably tight and well-coordinated – you can tell Olari Elts had conducted the work eight times before making the recording.

Prophecy is an accordion concerto in four interlocking movements. Again Tüür’s skilful integration of an unusual solo instrument is very striking, and there’s interesting timbral interaction with the orchestral woodwind and percussion. There’s less variety overall than in the symphony, but both works belie the potentially gimmicky expectations created by their titles.

 BBC Music Magazine,  Terry Blain


Tüür’s Symphony No.5 was premiered by the SWR Big Band, SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Olari Elts with Martin Scales (guitar), on 1st February 2005 at the Stuttgart Theaterhaus as part of the Eclat New Music Festival who commissioned the work.

It is in four movements, the first of which opens with a long held note from the brass with wavering decorations. The band is soon joined by the symphony orchestra in a melodious descending motif. The held note is repeated and, again, the orchestra joins as a trumpet brings staccato notes, slowly becoming wilder as the brass descend to deep orchestral phrases. Soon the band returns, pointed up by drums before the band and orchestra alternate with staccato outbursts from the band.

There are fine textures and swirls of orchestral sound punctuated by brass interventions. The way Tüür dovetails the band with the orchestra seems so natural. There are lovely brass textures and motifs including a saxophone. Later Nguyên Lê’s electric guitar can be heard providing its distinctive sound to the florid, swirling textures of the band and orchestra. Throughout there are bursts of energy that seem incapable of being restrained before we go straight into the Movement II.

The electric guitar enters with a full throated sound though, for all its rock music associations, within the context of this work, it sounds strangely symphonic and, often, rather Eastern in style whilst underlaid with a consistent layer of orchestral sound. Nguyên Lê certainly makes a terrific presence as he improvises this section. Soon the music quietens to hushed orchestral strings to which woodwind and delicate percussion join. Here we are back in the purely symphonic classical world where little surges of music alternate with a hushed flowing theme. The music becomes slower yet louder as the forward swirling flow increases, high on the strings with continuous little bursts of woodwind and brass, becoming increasingly tense. Eventually the music slows and falls to a deep string resonance followed by hushed murmuring strings. A flute enters as do other woodwind in a drooping motif beautifully realised, a beautiful little moment as the music fades quietly into Movement III.

In the opening the band quietly but rhythmically enter before rising up in a dance passage complete with plucked jazz style double bass. The music leads ahead with jazz trumpet against the rhythmic theme from the band, complete with drum kit, bass and jazzy accompaniment. This music really swings with a brief drum solo before the symphony orchestra can be heard joining with the band that continues punctuating the orchestra as the music moves quickly forward. There is an insistently beaten out motif from the band with raucous saxophone joined by the electric guitar in a loud frenetic, absolutely terrific section. Tüür brilliantly brings all these elements together. Somehow it just works.

The music swirls around until moving into Movement IV where the music  drops away to woodwind arabesques that slowly descend with the orchestra playing a little woodwind theme with upward flourishes. Percussion join, adding a rhythmic touch as sections of the band take over in a slightly syncopated motif. The orchestral strings join in the fun; rising in dynamics as the electric guitar joins, bringing a tremendous beat and a pretty dynamic overall sound from orchestra, band, percussion and electric guitar with an insistent forward motion sweeping all aside. Slowly the guitarist improvises some terrific passages over the violent accompaniment, rising ever more in volume and complexity until a peak is reached and the music slowly fades away. From the hush arises strange string sounds and a woodwind theme as the music gently and mysteriously moves forward to the hushed coda.

This symphony is a tremendous achievement pulling all these sounds together seamlessly.

Prophecy for Accordion and Orchestra (2007) was commissioned by theTurku Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre de Bretagne and premiered on 11th October 2007at the Turku Concert Hall, Finland by Mika Väyrynen (accordion) with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Olari Elts

Prophecy opens with a sudden chord from the accordion of Mika Väyrynen over a string base that is held, slowly rising louder. When the Väyrynen re-enters it is over a flute motif to which the accordion playfully joins in some beautifully written music. The way the accordion is allowed to blend its textures with strings and woodwind is so subtle that occasionally one has to listen attentively to hear where the accordion joins and leaves the orchestral textures. The music has a rising and falling, surging quality, full of little outbursts with lots of bubbling little phrases reflected by the accordion. Later the music becomes more rhythmic as the accordion pushes ahead with the theme, the accordion and orchestra becoming more dynamic with an offset rhythm.

There are some terrific textures and colours and, indeed, rhythms as the music progresses. Eventually the music opens out in a quieter passage where the accordion plays a playful and gentle little theme over the hushed orchestra before arriving at a short cadenza. Little motifs from individual orchestral instruments follow as the music descends into the lowest register for the accordion where, ruminating against woodwind swirls, it slowly rises, the accordion theme becoming ever more florid. The music falls to a hush with a rhythmic beat for percussion before the accordion takes up a faster beat, rising with drums as the tempo continues to increase with the return of the syncopated rhythm. The accordion plays a fast and frantic theme as the music rushes to the dynamic end.

This is a tremendous performance of an extremely effective work for accordion and orchestra.

Erkki-Sven Tüür is such a technically assured composer with an ear for combining subtle textures as well as the big gesture. The performances could not be bettered and they receive an excellent recording that coped perfectly with all the combined sounds thrown at it. The booklet notes take the form of a discussion between the composer and conductor.   Bruce Reader


In den letzten Jahren hat sich der estnische Komponist Erkki-Sven Tüür (Jg. 1959) zu einem der interessantesten Sinfoniker der Gegenwart entwickelt. Seine bislang letzte Sinfonie, die Achte, erlebte 2010 ihre Uraufführung. Die auf vorliegender CD eingespielte Fünfte entstand 2004 und verdankt ihre Entstehung dem SWR Stuttgart, der an den Komponisten mit der Bitte herantrat, ein Werk für Sinfonieorchester und Big Band zu schreiben. Tüür, dem es stets ein Anliegen gewesen ist, verschiedene Musikstile zusammenzuführen, nahm den Auftrag nicht nur an, sondern setzte sogar noch eins drauf, indem er mehrere von einem Jazz- oder Rockgitarristen auf einem elektrischen Instrument frei zu improvisierende Passagen einbaute – sozusagen „Fenster“ für eine improvisierte Musik innerhalb des fest konstruierten Gebäudes einer Sinfonie. Er bezog sich damit konkret auf seine Vergangenheit als Mitglied der Prog-Rock-Gruppe „In Spe“, mit der er in seiner Heimat populär wurde.

Natürlich kommt einem bei dieser Kombination dreier auf den ersten Blick schwer zusammenzufassender Klangquellen zuallererst das Modewort „Crossover“ in den Sinn. Es ist jedoch erstaunlich, wie einheitlich und organisch sich das Werk letztlich gibt. Wie viele von Tüürs Kompositionen, so ist auch die Sinfonie Nr. 5 mittels einer auf bestimmten festen Intervallkonstellationen beruhenden Technik entworfen, die er „vektoriell“ nennt. Deren einzelne Grundlagen sind für den Hörer unerheblich, doch man spürt starke Ordnungskräfte, von denen die nach allen Seiten sich ausbreitende motivische und klangfarbliche Bewegung zusammengehalten wird. So bildet die einleitende Klangfolge das Material, auf dem die gesamte Sinfonie aufgebaut ist. 

Die Big Band fügt sich klanglich fast nahtlos ins Orchestergewebe ein, lediglich in den beiden letzten Sätzen des Viersätzers sorgen „Walking Bass“-Passagen und treibende Rhythmen des Drumsets dann doch noch so etwas wie eine „Third Stream“-Atmosphäre. Heikler muten da schon die Passagen für E-Gitarre an. Da sie improvisiert sind – ob vollständig oder nicht, darüber gibt das ansonsten informative Beiheft keine Auskunft –, wirken sie letztlich wie ein Fremdkörper innerhalb der sonst so organisch wirkenden Sinfonie an und entbehren, in diesem speziellen Kontext, auch nicht des äußerlichen Effekts. Nichtsdestoweniger vermag der französisch-vietnamesische Gitarrist Nguyên Lê, eine feste Größe in der progressiven Jazz- und Weltmusik-Szene, durchaus zu beindrucken. Und letztlich lohnt das sehr farbenreich instrumentierte Werk mehrmaliges intensives Hören, nach dem man vielleicht auch die Gitarre als gleichberechtigtes Element zu akzeptieren bereit ist.

Einen mindestend ebenso positiven Eindruck hinterlässt Prophecy für Akkordeon und Orchester. Das 20-minütige Stück fasst mehrere Teile in einem Satz zusammen, wirkt wie aus einem Guss und bietet dem Solisten mannigfachen Raum zur Entfaltung seiner Virtuosität. Dass es Tüür hier gelungen ist, dem Akkordeon einen absolut individuellen Charakter zu verpassen, der nichts mit den Sphären zu tun hat, aus dem man den Klang des Instruments gemeinhin kennt (Tango etc.) und nichtsdestoweniger ein Stück Musik zu schaffen, das den Hörer unmittelbar gefangen nimmt, macht unter anderem die Stärke des Werks aus.

Olari Elts, der Tüürs Kompositionen regelmäßig zur Aufführung bringt, das Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra sowie die beiden Solisten Nguyên Lê und Mika Värynen sorgen für authentische und mitreißende Interpretationen, eingefangen in einem gleichermaßen dynamischen wie transparenten Klangbild.

Klassik Heute,  Thomas Schulz