TUBIN: Symphony No. 1 in C minor; Symphony No. 8.
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Arvo Volmer
ALBA ABCD 163. TT: 65:43

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Eduard Tubin (1905-1982), his is the name that, by rights, should pop into your head at the words "Estonian composer," rather than that of Arvo Pärt. Pärt flirted haltingly with styles ranging from chant-based modal harmony to arbitrary dissonance, alighting serendipitously on a slushy, thick-textured stasis—proto-minimalism dressed in Lloyd Webberish colors—at precisely the moment to conform to the Zeitgeist. Meanwhile, the lesser-known Tubin assiduously and successfully mined the supposedly exhausted symphonic vein to considerable dramatic effect over a long career.

The symphonies on this new disc, drawn from opposite ends of Tubin's output, display a voice that remained singular and consistent even as the compositional technique and idiom evolved. The composer's harmonic schemes are squarely tonal, but the sometimes complex chromatics root them firmly in the twentieth century. He apparently was uninterested in the exploitation of instrumental color as such, favoring a uniform, blended impasto of strings and winds doubled on individual lines. (The occasional woodwind solos stand out as much for their rarity as their brevity.) His attentive, ingenious juxtaposition of varied rhythmic and motivic elements nonetheless produced rich, animated orchestral textures, built into climaxes of stunning emotional impact.

The four-movement Eighth Symphony of 1966 brackets two Allegros with two slow movements, á la Shostakovich. Indeed, the symphony's opening, with a disturbed rising string line underpinned by tympani pulses, draws us into a world of bitter, painful anger. The mood becomes eloquently tragic as pungent melodic lines build into fuller sonorities, their gradual dying out producing an aching sense of loss. In the ensuing Allegro moderato, the short woodwind motifs turning in on themselves once again suggest Shostakovich, the steady, driving rhythms only pausing for the unfolding of a unison string threnody. The turbulent Allegro vivace, marked by cutting brass ostinatos and relentless, pounding tympani, moves without pause into the grimly dissonant brass chorale that heralds the finale, in which broad, arching string themes are counterposed against more insistent rhythmic motifs.

The three-movement First Symphony of 1934 is more characteristic of Tubin in its smoother melodic lines, its less jagged harmonic language, and its guarded optimism. If Shostakovich cast his shadows over the Eighth, it's Vaughan Williams, of all people, who leaves a stronger mark here: in the first movement's tootling clarinet; in the central movement, which contrives to set andante motion at a scherzo-ish pace; and in the unhurried breadth of the finale, where the melodic contours become more angular. The manner is rhetorical yet persuasively affirmative, with irregular, undulating meters creating a buoyant rhythmic elasticity.

Arvo Volmer shapes both symphonies to clear expressive purpose. He draws trim, well-defined sonorities from the Estonian National Symphony, though crisper rhythmic address would not be amiss in the Eighth's more dramatic gestures. Sonics are warm and, as the solo clarinet lines make clear, unobtrusively ambient.

Stephen Francis Vasta (December 2003)