Saturday, January 04, 2014

Eduard Tubin: Eastonian composer deserves to be performed more

There are a number of post-1900 composers who are reasonably popular with classical music buffs but not to the “average” concert-going public (whom symphony orchestras have to market subscriptions to), yet whose music seems find its way into Hollywood scores and even popular or disco mashups. All composition is copying, it seems. You play some of their work and the themes really pop out.  “I’ve heard that before”, probably in a chase scene in a movie.   

One quasi post-Romantic composer who attracted my notice in the late 1980’s, the early days of CD collecting, was Estonian composer Eduard Tubin, who emigrated to Sweden in 1944. 
Tubin’s music is a mixture of styles: the centerpiece is a modern implementation of Scandanavian post-Romanticism, with echoes of Sibelius, Nielsen, and British composer Arnold Bax, and some Soviet elements owing to Shostakovich.  At times, he can venture into impressionism.

The BIS label from Sweden issued most of his music on CD, usually with the Swedish Radio Symphony conducted by Neeme Jarvi.

There is a remarkable 3CD set of all of his piano music, performed by Vardo Rumessen. 
Tubin composed two numbered piano sonatas, apparently in E Minor and C# Minor, in 1928 and 1950.  The first is rather quiet a lot and not that remarkable, but the second is the infamous “Northern Lights”, which could be a warning sign of a solar flare or coronal mass ejection, threatening our power grid and dependence on electricity.  I doubt Tubin was thinking of that, and he lived at high enough latitude that the lights were common.  The first movement has lots of “Aeolian” (or “aurora borealis”) arpeggios that sound whole-tone-like but become lively.  The slow movement is a bit of a dirge, but then wakes itself up with the impressionistic arpeggios.  The Finale has a start-stop shape-shifter theme (harmonized in fourths) that sounds like sci-fi, and then returns to the aurora-like arpeggios.  The loud and percussive ending plays games with tonality, finally settling on the tonality of B.  
In between the sonatas, Tubin composed a 25-minute “Sonatina” (1949) in D Minor, which is deliberately classical in nature, almost like his own homage to Beethoven and even Haydn.  But he could have numbered it as a full Sonata.
Tubin was capable of writing miniatures, too, with his Seven Preludes and his Suite on Estonian Shepherd Melodies.
The ten completed symphonies (there is a first movement of an eleventh) range in style, with the earlier works being more obviously post-romantic.  About half the time Tubin ends his works quietly (as if to give the listener some extra mental space), but he is capable of working up heroic climaxes.
The first, in C Minor, ends on a loud dissonance.  The Second, “The Legendary”, in B Minor, is evocative and ends with a quiet epilogue that is often compared to Bax (especially the latter’s own Second).  The Third, in D, is called the Heroic and is filled with suspiciously familiar and quotable themes even though it isn’t performed often. The work includes a violin solo in the often-pirated second movement.  The recursive main theme of the first movement will also sound familiar, as Hollywood has used it in more than one western.  The Fourth, in A, is called the Lyric but is lively.  The Fifth, in B Minor, is the best known, with a moving and melodic slow movement and a powerful close that reminds one of the Shostakovich Fifth.  The Sixth is quite dissonant and hard to fathom (BIS pairs it with the Bax-like Second).  The Seventh is also popular, in that Tubin, in the finale especially, experimented with 12-tone writing that still has an eventual tonal center (in this case, apparently C).  Still,  the work curiously reminds me of Vaughn Williams (that is, of the latter’s “mean” Fourth Symphony).  The last four haven’t made much impression on me. Neither does the “Sinfonietta”.
Tubin composed a Piano “Concertino” which is a full-fledged, if short, Piano Concerto in E-flat (like Liszt). He wrote two violin concerti, of which the first evokes Sibelius a bit.  He also composed concerti for the Double Bass (who else did, for strong young men?) and the balalaika (a kind of banjo).
There is a lot of Tubin on YouTube, although not that many complete works. (The "Northern Lights" is there, although I don't know how legally.)  I would be concerned about the possibility of consumers getting lazy and not "buying" music legally often enough to support classical music.  It's important to pay for some things. Do your part, occasionally. "It's not "free" forever.  It really is "enlightened self-interest".   

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