Estonian National Symphony Orchestra

29. mai 2023.

Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Edinburgh Music Review

There is something very satisfying about going to a concert on a Sunday afternoon. The traffic is usually quite light and there is a general sense of tranquillity about Edinburgh which one doesn’t find on any other day. One wanders into the Usher Hall, to find a nice mixture of ages and types, all looking for a pleasant afternoon of high quality music. The year round series of visiting orchestras gives us a chance to hear what other nationalities make of familiar and unfamiliar works, and then you can wander home with plenty of time to have a glass and a nice dinner. If the programme is as inviting as the one today, given by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Olari Elts, one comes away with a warm glow of contentment.

I have never been to Estonia, but it seems a fascinating country, with a long history, and standing as it does at a crossroads between the Scandinavian north, the familiar European west and the east of Russia and beyond, it can be said to be a fulcrum of musical styles.

Founded in 1926, this orchestra has lived through dark times of war and revolution, but is, certainly on this showing, a very fine ensemble indeed. Olari Elts, born in 1971 in Tallinn, was Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra from 2007, and, in 2020, was appointed Chief Conductor and Music Director.

The concert began with a piece by perhaps Estonia’s most famous composer, Arvo Pärt, born in 1935, his ‘Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten’, written in 1977 in memory of the English composer who had died the year before. This was one of the first works by Pärt in his tintinnabuli style, and one of his finest. Scored for string orchestra and one tubular bell, it is both supremely simple and deeply moving. I have met Arvo a couple of times, when singing Christus in his ‘Passio’ (The Passion according to St John), with the wonderful Hilliard Ensemble, in Stockholm and Zürich, and found him to be a most gentle and spiritual man, his tall angular frame and piercing eyes dominating all around. He describes his reaction to Britten’s death as a loss of someone who possessed unusual purity, a quality he was seeking in his composition too. Pärt’s early work had been a cacophony of bluster and swagger in the contemporary Soviet style, but he realised the futility of such writing, and the ‘Cantus’ is one of his first attempts at finding his own style. Starting in scored silence, we first hear the bell, playing A, and then the orchestra plays descending A Minor scales. As the piece progresses, each section finally arrives at the note they were seeking, and then proceeds to play only that note. The last section to reach their goal is the double basses, and the whole ensemble by this time is quite loud. Suddenly, everything stops, just as the bell is hit softly, and we are left with its reverberation into silence. It’s a magical work, and the Estonians played it superbly. I had never heard it live before, and it is a most mesmeric piece. I have sung a lot of the music of Benjamin Britten in my career, but like Arvo, I never met him, and listening to the ‘Cantus’, I found myself meditating on the brilliance of his compositions, and also on the genius of the Estonian aesthete.

The second item on the programme was Rachmaninov’s youthful First Piano Concerto, written when the tyro composer was just 18, and a student at the Moscow Conservatoire. Revised in 1917 to the background noise of guns and bombs during the Russian Revolution, just before Rachmaninov fled to the USA, its first performance was in New York, played by the composer with the Russian Symphony Society Orchestra. The soloist was the magnificent Irish pianist, Barry Douglas, who brought all his fantastic technical skill to a bravura performance which rightly led to a great roar of appreciation from the modest-sized audience in the Usher Hall. Neatly accompanied by Olari Elts, and wonderfully played by the orchestra, the full splendour of Rachmaninov’s teenage imagination, coupled with his mature revisions, delighted us and filled the hall with Russian passion. Mr Douglas coaxed fabulous sounds out of the Steinway, myriad notes tumbling from his fingers, as his piano worked in tandem with orchestral fanfares and swooning lyrical passages. The relative calm of the Andante middle movement gave way to the tumultuous finale, in which Rachmaninov racks up the excitement to propel us to the final climactic pages, dominated by the fiery playing of Barry Douglas. The long applause led to a superb encore of a movement from Prokofiev’s 10 piano pieces taken from his own ballet, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a tour de force of pianistic excellence!

On our return to the hall after the interval, we were treated to a splendid account of Dvořak’s famous 9th Symphony, ‘From the New World’. Glancing at my review of a performance of the same symphony nine months ago, given by the Filharmonie Brno from Czechia, I see that I remarked that famous music is usually famous for the very excellent reason that it is very good. This view holds true, and we heard a very good performance today.

It is always interesting to hear how different some orchestras can sound, depending on their country of origin. Emphasis on certain instruments can vary considerably. However, for me, the resounding homogeneity of the Estonian Orchestra was the critical element. Sensational strings, burnished brass and warm woodwind, combined with a tactile timpanist, all united to create a superb sound, expertly moulded by Olari Elts. My initial impression was of a Michael Palin look-alike in the guise of the drab accountant who wants to be a lion tamer, but Mr Elts was transformed into a veritable lion himself at the podium, with extravagant gestures and dynamic, dramatic conducting, bringing out all the nuances of Dvořak’s wonderful score, which took New York by storm in 1893, and then swept through the concert halls of Europe. All the solos were beautifully played, none better than the flute in the first movement, and the famous cor-anglais in the second. The big tune of the finale, played on the brass, never fails to thrill, and today was no exception. Even Dvořak’s slightly strange idea of ending the symphony with a brass and woodwind chord, fading to pianissimo, seemed well-judged, rather than anti-climactic, as it often can.

Thunderous applause and cheers led to an encore of ‘Mélisande’ s Death’ from Sibelius’ Suite, ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’, an oddly downbeat end but perhaps a marker of the seriousness of an orchestra determined to find its place among the world’s top ensembles. It was beautifully and sonorously played, finding the deep melancholy of Maeterlinck’s tragic heroine, tinged with a Baltic froideur.

As with my review of the Brno orchestra, I was disappointed there was no programme available in the hall. There was a downloadable version on the Usher Hall events page, which I printed off (although no notes about the Arvo Pärt piece!), but surely a couple of pages could be provided for the audience?