Adam Garrie

Adam Garrie writes passionately about topics ranging from politics and history to art and music. He is currently engaged in various artistic business ventures.

Adam Garrie: Investment – attract don’t attack. A warning from Cyprus

Let us begin with the premise that there is no universal morality. If one accepts this premise it logically follows that there can be no corporate (in the literal sense of ‘group’) morality. Politics is necessarily a corporate institution and therefore any attempts to interject a morality into politics is either an extension of one’s personal morality or if not, nothing more than a vain attempt to conjure a universal sense of morality—something authoritarian states, corrupt states and bellicose states have been very fond of throughout history.

Taking things to a more local level, we observe Cyprus. Cyprus is in financial peril for much the same reason Greece is—over-borrowing money with a currency whose exchange rates are not locally controlled with no realistic chance of making enough money to pay it back. But the other story that just about any Cypriot will tell you is that the country would have an even smaller/weaker economy if not for foreign investment. The majority of this investment is not coming from any Eurozone country but is overwhelmingly coming from Russia. Russian money is buying property, buying local goods, and most importantly keeping Cyprus’s crucial service sector from falling into oblivion.

This is why after rightly rejecting the deeply impractical, contradictory (attacking savers to solve a crisis caused by over spending) and almost vindictive EU bail out terms, the government have turned to Russia. In spite of the predictable anti-Russian propaganda emanating from Brussels and to some extent Berlin, Russia’s interest in Cyprus is the same as the Cypriot people—protecting the savings of their respective citizens. If the British military can fly money to British nationals in Cyprus why shouldn’t Russia be allowed to organise a plan to help her citizens as well and in the process ideally offer Cyprus a bail out of some sort which is more favourable than the European plan?

The plight of spendthrift Hellenic Cyprus may seem to have nothing to do with Estonian politics at first glance but it does, because on Estonia’s southern border is a country quickly becoming a sought after country for Russian investors for much the same reason that Cyprus once was. It has recently been reported that over half the money circulating in the Latvian banking system is in the hands on non-Latvian citizens. The majority of these people are from the Russian Federation, with others from Ukraine, central Asia and the Caucuses. The comparative success in Latvia compared to Cyprus shows how a mix of responsible fiscal policies with foreign investment from a country safely outside the Eurozone can make a small country economically solvent in bad economic times.

But the story doesn’t end there because everyone has their own sense of political morality. There is the admirable position of Nils Ušakovs, one which looks to Europe and Russia equally for political and economic friendship and partnership. The powers of Europe already are painting Russia as the antagonist of Cyprus when in reality Russia could save Cyprus from crisis and ironically save the Eurozone from spending more European tax money on another Mediterranean bail out. Then there are the views of Žaneta Jaunzeme-Grende who talks of the Russian language the way one would talk about a communicable disease instead of what is along with English one of the two most important languages anyone could speak when working in the northern hemisphere.

The fact remains though that Russia still sees Latvia as a friendlier environment than Estonia—hence why Latvia pays less for Russian gas. The lesson for Estonia however is not clear cut. Estonia has benefited from a cultural of technological start-ups which have captured the world’s attention in the way no other European country has done in recent years (whether it be a small Baltic country or a large EU country like Germany, France or the UK). In this sense Estonia can export software and the knowledge that goes with it, something which in the 21st century is tantamount to exporting cars or electronic hardware in many ways.

So Estonia has the potential to be very economically independent in many ways. But foreign investment whether it be in a company or more broadly in property, banks and the service sector is still important(in any country). How important is all down to how much productivity Estonia can capitalise on in respect of the IT sector.

I have no doubt most Estonian’s would rather be self-sufficient than not. Every country wants this. But political grandstanding should never get in the way of attracting money. Cyprus has made itself attractive to Russian money and Cyprus has benefited from it. The problems Cyprus had would be infinitely worse without the Russian money still in the country (for now).  Nils Ušakovs’s political movement in Latvia has demonstrated that being a part of the EU and having good relations with The Russian Federation are not mutually exclusive. They both bring immense benefits.

Cyprus can no longer save herself from the economic crisis, only Russia can do so now. In a macro-economic sense Estonia already has saved herself from the global economic crisis (though problems certainly persist and governments should act faster to fix them). Estonia should increasingly see that Russian investment will be good for the economy and the country. Taking a less antagonistic view towards Russia in general will be not only good for the economy but culturally healthy as well. In much of Europe people view Germany’s economic power which inevitably puts her at the heart of the EU, with distain. In parts of the world Russia is viewed with disdain for much the same reason. Both are small minded parochial views which will ultimately leave the world in a less prosperous and less peaceful position. Pragmatism is often the best antidote for the dangerous zeal that walks hand in hand with notions of universal morality.


The opinions in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian World Webzine.

Photos: Picture pictures

Adam Garrie: Modern Europe and political geography

Recently EstonianWorld’s co-author Chris Glew interviewed British Liberal Democratic Member of Parliament Sir Malcolm Bruce about his views on Estonia’s position in the wider world. There was one comment by Sir Malcolm that particularly struck me as being rather unintentionally controversial but controversial nevertheless. First of all he said that Estonia ought to be referred to as a ‘Nordic Country’ in the English speaking world rather than an ‘Eastern European country’. What is so dangerous about this statement is that is seeks to continually politicise two otherwise dispassionate scientific terms.

Obviously Estonia is a Nordic country in so far as Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, which is generally classed as a major Nordic language group. Furthermore, anthropologists generally understand Estonians to be of Nordic racial stock, not dissimilar to Finns. Also, as one of the most north-easterly countries in mainland Europe, it is a geographical truism to say that Estonia is in Eastern Europe. This would seem to be a fairly simple and straight forward matter, but as we all know, ethnography is easily manipulated from scientific observation into ideological sabre tips. This is perhaps best understood when one researches the reaction to Max Müller’s ground breaking research on Indo-European languages, reactions that twisted Müller’s ground-breaking scientific work into race baiting propaganda.

Whilst the term Nordic generally doesn’t carry with it any heated political controversies in the wider world (in the 21st century), in certain parts of ‘Western Europe’ the term ‘Eastern Europe’ does do. As a British MP, Sir Malcolm Bruce must certainly be aware of a certain anti-Slavic racism in Britain, a racism which seems to be the last form of racism which successive British Governments seem to care nothing about. Without seemingly understanding about the many blood soaked wars Slavs have fought against other Slavs, there has for many years existed a deeply anti-Slavic hatred running deep along the axis of British government. This was most apparently expressed in the form of anti-Russian paranoia during the Governments of The Viscount Palmerstone, Benjamin Disraeli and The 3rd Marques of Salisbury in the 19th century. The anti-Russian hysteria of British governments continued well into the 21st century when the former foreign secretary and brother of the current leader of the British Labour Party David Miliband made open threats to the Russian Federation in Kiev in 2008, whilst standing beside Viktor Yushchenko – a man currently under the scrutiny of the world’s eyes for his part in the imprisonment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is currently being tortured in a Ukrainian prison.

But how does Nordic Estonia fit into this wider picture? The fortunate answer is that it does not. Estonia has of course been the tragic victim of Soviet Occupation, but the intra-Slavic and British-Slavic conflicts which the UK Foreign Office can’t seem to let go of, are happily issues which do not effect Estonia. The problem however is that in 21st century Britain, the term ‘Eastern Europe’ has often become synonymous with a new anti-Slavic racism in Britain, one that emanates from both the gutter and from Government.

Ever since 2004 when the first of the so-called A8 countries joined the European Union, there has been an exponential growth in anti-Slavic racism in Britain. This time Russia is not the issue, but instead it is the Western Slavic countries, Poland in particular. It is not just groups like the English Defence League and British National Party arguing for a Stalinist style relocation of human beings on a racial basis, but it is unfortunately also the current British Home Secretary Theresa May, who has hinted at violating one of the most important principles of European Law and limiting the free movements of A8 passport holders; something which would affect all members of the A8 group, including non-Slavic members like Estonia.

It is perfectly reasonable that Estonians should be un-comfortable with the term ‘Eastern European’ because in the British context this has come to be a byword for anti-WestSlav racism. Why for example should an Estonian want to be hated on the grounds they are a West Slav when Estonians are a Nordic people with virtually no West-Slavs living in Estonia? Why in other words should Estonians be victims of a racism not even intended for them?

The reasons though that Estonians should care about this matter is because Estonia is an ultra-modern country with a deeply sophisticated cultural ethos and in spite of issues between Baltic Russians and the Estonian Government, Estonia has had many fewer instances of racial tension than the large countries in Western Europe; the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Estonians should not be afraid to reclaim the term ‘Eastern Europe’ as a politically irrelevant geographical expression.

It is only a fool who mistakes a bland scientific fact for an expression of a subjective ideology. In Britain the term ‘Eastern European’ may indeed carry racist overtones, but it is up to Estonians living in Britain to realise that both Nordic and Eastern European are harmless scientific expressions, expressions which must be re-claimed as such. Only by naming and shaming people like the members of the fascistic and ironically Stalinistic English Defence League and British National Party, will all Europeans feel comfortable in Britain, a country which ought to live up to her commitments to the European ideal, an ideal which Estonia has so successfully embraced.


The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Pictures: Wikimedia Commons.

Adam Garrie: The Vagueness of Charter 12

Last week, some very well known Estonian intellectuals and public figures issued a petition called Harta 12 (Charter 12). The petition came about in the light of recent allegedly murky dealings, where the governing Reform Party received large amounts of donations in cash. The authors of Charter 12 allege that those currently holding power in Estonia no longer feel the need to take heed of the public. Adam Garrie argues that Charter 12 is very vague in its statements and fails to fully comprehend the current democratic processes in the world.

From Magna Carta to Martin Luther to the English Chartists to Vaclav Havel and Charter 77, social and political events have often sprung from charters of one variety or another. There is always some element of righteousness mixed with quixotic idealism in such charters and Charter 12 is no exception to this rule. The idea of improving one’s government is generally a well-founded aim, but the statements in Charter 12 are so vague that they scarcely have any precise meaning, and the prescriptions to the supposed problems are simplistic and again highly vague.

Charter 12 reads rather like a high school level political diatribe from a misplaced idealist. The intention is obviously a noble one, but the form in which it is expressed and the ultimate conclusions misread and mis-assess a central feature of modern politics. Whether one wants to accept it or not, the age of purportedly democratic nation states, especially small and medium sized ones, is over. This age was of course a relatively short one in world history, lasting from 1945 to the early 2000’s in non-Communist Europe, and from the early 1990’s to roundabout 2008 in the Warsaw Pact and European states that became independent after the collapse of Soviet Union. Even three of the world’s largest and most powerful nations are far from democratic in any real sense. The US is an oligarchy masquerading as a Presidential Republic, China is likewise a neo-mercantile oligarchy masquerading in Maoist costumes, and Russia is essentially the property of one man, governed by his managers. Against this backdrop, Estonia’s political system for all its imperfections looks rather a safe place to be.

But Charter 12 is not a comparative piece; indeed it deals only with Estonian politics and does not even explicitly mention the European Union. The piece, when dissected to its core, is essentially a love letter to a vague concept of representative democracy with overtones that suggest a desire for a kind of ‘Basic People’s Congress’; the local administrative unites of Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya (“state of the masses”) in Libya.

The piece does not argue for the virtues of representative democracy, but rather presumptuously assumes its intended audience (ostensibly anyone who votes in Estonian elections) favours this particular system of governance. The truth is that representative democracy, as put into practice in half of Europe after the Second World War and virtually all of Europe (with several important exceptions) after the collapse of Soviet Union, is not a system which can easily cope with the economic strains, let alone the economic benefits of a fully globalised, digitised and culturally fluid world. Many Eurosceptics from Helsinki to London complain that the current eurozone crisis is a result of a deficiency in democracy. In reality it is the out-dated model of democratically controlled fiscal policy that is one of the core problems in the current crisis.

Because of inadequate preparations, a common monetary policy was introduced into the eurozone without taking into consideration the need for a common fiscal policy. Indeed it is the widely divergent fiscal policies of eurozone members which have allowed debt to spiral out of control, thus threatening the stability of not just southern Europe, but the world. Indeed it is the bickering currently on display in southern European parliaments which has delayed a potential and highly necessary re-constitution of the eurozone; a re-constitution that would necessarily require a more united if not fully common fiscal policy. This is just one pertinent example of how the process of representative democracy has retarded economic growth much to the detriment of men and women throughout the eurozone. In this sense the democracies of fiscally irresponsible eurozone states are holding the entire community ransom as they thrash out failed budget after failed budget.

With this in mind, wouldn’t it be better if those interested in improving Estonian governance focused on what government could do to further incentivise international commerce to come to Estonia, how to properly invest in digital infrastructure, cutting remaining regulations from the Soviet past and working with the European Union and others to promote Estonian culture to the wider world?

Indeed, the role of government in the modern world can be defined in the following way. Government in an ideal state must do only three things: 1. Promote economic growth 2. Expand and maintain public services 3. Invest in and promote art, sport and culture. Frequent elections and an overemphasis on populism rather than harnessing a country’s best intellectual, economic, educational, managerial and artistic talent are more often than not a stumbling block to prosperity. It is what’s happening now in the eurozone at this moment. Appeals to the gutter are never a good starting point for serious political maturity. In spite of a political system born in the 1990’s, Estonia’s governance is one of the most mature in Europe. Corruption exists, but it is a corruption that is generally manageable and does not get in the way of the ordinary work of government the way it does in many older democracies.
Charter 12 also talks about ‘listening to the people’. Thankfully, the Estonian public isn’t demanding the same things that large sections of the Greek public are doing. But if the public of Estonia or any country in the world were starting to call the leaders of modern Germany Nazis (as has happened in Greece – Editor), if they were calling for unilateral withdrawal from European Law, if they were calling for the forcible re-location of legal residents, I would certainly hope that those in government would not listen to the ‘people’.

The populist claptrap in Charter 12 for all its liberal credentials sounds like a poorly written version of some of the populist rhetoric being thrown at the urban populations of Russia prior to the October Revolution. This is to say nothing of how the National Socialists cleverly used the representative democratic process to take over Germany in 1933.

In a way I’m giving the writers of Charter 12 too much credit for robustly advancing an ultra-populist ideal. The piece is written in a rather circular, highly ambiguous tone where clichés are thrown around more rapidly than punches at a hockey match. This vagueness is combined with a kind of veiled call for a kind of uprising, though the tone in which it is written thankfully prohibits this from being taken seriously. The only proposal which was not either vague or childish was the idea of citizen proposed initiatives. It must be said though that this process is often a cumbersome one and if such initiatives are binding on a government it can lead to populist chaos more quickly than almost any other legislative process.

Ultimately any Estonian government will rise and fall on the same basis as any government in any modern nation. If the economy grows, if public services are broadly efficient and if the culture remains vibrant, the government will succeed; if not, it will eventually fail. Even Putin’s popularity in spite of elections that are generally not democratic in any idealistic sense, rests on the fact that he has an economic record for growth and avoiding the pitfalls of the recessions that have plagued much of Europe, Japan and the United States over the last four years. There are plenty of political charters and manifestos circulating in Russia today, but in spite of concerns about freedom of information, the more important reason that such things are widely ignored by the Russian public, is because most of Putin’s pragmatic opponents can’t foresee anyone who could do a better job in terms of economic growth and management of public services for the time being. In Estonia, the country that has the most cyber-freedom of any in the world, Charter 12 will eventually fizzle out and nothing will change as a result of it. Hopefully it won’t distract people long enough to seriously affect the more important economic debate. I seriously doubt it will do.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover photo by Phillip Martin

Adam Garrie: Why a secular Syria is good for Estonia

It is bitterly ironic that the Russian Federation, a country whose courts have just imprisoned several young women under the guise of protecting a religious institution and religious sensibilities, is a vastly more robust supporter of secularism in the Middle East than is Estonia.

Less than two weeks ago, Urmas Paet (Estonian foreign minister) called for the international community to work towards easing Syria into a ‘transitional government’ which is of course a rather cryptic way of saying ‘regime change’.

I do not doubt Paet’s sincerity in wanting violence in Syria, particularly violence against unarmed and uninvolved civilians to end, but I must truly question his judgment if he thinks that regime change will either end specific acts of violence, or the culture of violence that has fomented in Syria in the second half of 2012. In a recent interview with RT, Bashar al-Assad stated that Syria was “…the last stronghold of secularism and stability in the region”. This statement is deeply important. Indeed, prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US led coalition, the Middle East and wider Arab world had either fully or moderatly secular governments in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. All of these governments are now either formally or effectively controlled by people that would be considered religious extremists in any European society.


Syria is in this sense is the last bastion of secularism in a region that has been no stranger to religious warfare. Does Urmas Paet, who represents the world’s most secular country on the world’s stage, really believe that the world would be a better and safer place if yet another secular government was to be led by any member of the many religiously fanatical opposition armies currently shedding blood in Syria? Would he really trade a president who allows women to participate in civic affairs, who protects religious minorities, and who himself is from a religious minority, for the opposition fighters who have been condemned by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as war criminals?

The fact of the matter is that whilst the Middle East’s impact on Estonia is thankfully very little, the world would be safer for Estonia and certainly for Estonians abroad, if Syria remained a secular country, rather than one controlled by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood who are very much waiting in the wings, let alone the al-Qaeda style extremists who are already ravaging parts of Syria.

The region has been made unstable enough due to Turkey’s own supine religious revolution which has seen Recep Erdoğan abolish crucial elements of Turkey’s modern ultra-secular constitution by stealth. Turkey, once a bastion of secularism, progress and modernity in the region, is now being led by a Prime Minister who is labelled a mad Caliph not just by the President of Syria but by members of Turkey’s Kemalist opposition party, the CHP as well as the majority of all Kemalist newspapers and websites around Turkey and the wider world.

I do not imagine for one moment that many Estonians would be happy living under the Ba’athist regime of al-Assad, but Estonia like all countries must accept the world for what it is rather than what they think it ought to be.

A regime change in Syria would not result in easily accessed Wifi throughout the country, a flat income tax and fully digitised public services. It would instead result in a secular country governed imperfectly as it is, being transformed into a place where progress would be retarded by the forces of religious extremism, sectarian repression, sexism and ultra-censorship. If Sergei Lavrov understands this, why can’t Urmas Paet?


The opinions in this article are those of the author. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Arvo Pärt and Anton Bruckner: parallel lives

As a foremost composer of spiritually informed music, Arvo Pärt is something of an anachronism in modern Estonia. But this unique social position in which Pärt finds himself is analogous to the position of Anton Bruckner in late 19th century Austria. The following examines the parallel lives of Pärt and Bruckner and their strikingly similar relationship to their respective societies and broad musical traditions.

On a purely technical level, the music of Anton Bruckner and Arvo Pärt has rather little in common; Bruckner being one of the most prolific symphonists of the late romantic period, whilst Pärt has carved himself a unique place in music history as someone who has combined the seemingly polar styles of late 20th century minimalism with what for lack of a better word musicologists have termed ‘early music’. But beyond the technical disparities, Bruckner and Pärt share a common sense of musical pathos which is immediately apparent in their music.

A sense of semi-formal spirituality

Both Bruckner and Pärt have infused a sense of semi-formal spirituality if not religiosity into their music. Indeed, Bruckner’s epic symphonies have often been derided as ‘masses in disguise’ – a criticism that ironically has been received as a compliment by some of Bruckner’s more “devotional” devotees. Likewise, Pärt has borrowed from Gregorian and Orthodox chant, as sources of inspiration and harmonic jumping off points for his music.

But to say that both composers share a unique parallel position in the history of music is a rather unimpressive statement. It is only when the two composers’ place in their respective cultures and societies are examined, that one can truly grasp the striking parallels between the two composers. Anton Bruckner was once described by the introspective and consciously academic Mahler as “half simpleton and half god”. In my own life, I was first struck by the many polar contradictions in Bruckner’s life, when I saw his photograph. How, I asked myself, could a man whose countenance was both insignificant and hideous, compose music that could seemingly drip from the soul of Achilles?

Whilst this contradiction may correctly appear the observation of a child, it did hint at a deeper truth. Born on the rural outskirts of Linz, Austria, Bruckner was quite literally the peasant turned humble church organist, a man for whom religiosity was essential and grand composition came with a bewitchingly humble ease. Upon his arrival in Vienna he was mocked for everything from his out of date religious lifestyle, to his shabby sense of fashion and his unassertiveness. He was a man who could have come out of the turmoil of the 17th century, yet was living in a prosperous, increasingly secular, intellectually driven late 19th century Vienna.

And yet these early obstacles did not ultimately retard his success. In spite of a personality and lifestyle which was out of tune with the zeitgeist, he found a friend and supporter in the form of Richard Wagner, a man who helped define the musical and indeed philosophical and political zeitgeist. Along with Wagner, Bruckner’s unusually high insecurity and self-doubt which caused him to revise his pieces regularly, was aided through the support and companionship of some of Vienna’s most prolific musicians including the likes of Arthur Nikisch, Josef Schalk, Hermann Levi and later Ferdinand Löwe.

As Wagner was writing about German unity and amalgamation and Richard Strauss was exploring music’s resonance with the futuristic philosophy of Nietzsche; Bruckner was content to represent a fusion of older styles with a contemporary voice. Bruckner’s symphonies essentially combined a modernised harmonic structure reminiscent of Bach and other Baroque composers with the traditional sonata form of Beethoven. But within this framework Bruckner employed the modern behemoth Wagnerian orchestra and infused into his pieces a lyrical drama that was far more similar to the narrative drama of Wagner than many tend to realise.

A synthesis of older styles with a highly contemporary sonic pallet

Like Bruckner, Pärt’s music represents a synthesis of older styles with a highly contemporary sonic pallet. Pärt’s explorations of pre-Baroque music combined with his use of modern instrumentation often in a minimalist style, represents an important analogue to Bruckner synthesis of earlier styles with those of his own time. Perhaps more importantly though, Pärt’s spiritual inclination in a highly secular age and in particular a highly secular culture is rather analogous to Bruckner’s position in his own time and place.

Indeed, modern Estonian culture is one that has happily eschewed the rigid dogmas of both communism and religion to a greater degree than any other country in Europe. Estonia is in many ways a model of a healthy post-Enlightenment culture, one which has embraced scientific advancement, a logical approach to governance and a national life devoid of ideologies which uproot the sovereignty of human freedom.

And yet for Arvo Pärt, unlike most educated people in the world – and especially unlike the vast majority of Estonians, religion is not a strange relic of the past, but a force of deep emotional attraction. Pärt’s spiritual approach is rather different than Bruckner’s in some ways. Bruckner was a staunch Catholic dogmatist, even though ironically 20th century Catholic reactionaries found his music too romantic for a liturgical setting; the irony is biting and hypocritical indeed!

By contrast, Pärt’s religiosity represents a kind of post-Second World War syncretism, a desire to create some sort of understanding from a myriad of vague sources. Because of this, Pärt has plundered a variety of musical traditions from a number of liturgical sources, whereas Bruckner’s sense of sacred music was placed firmly within a central-European Roman Catholic tradition.

Shared pathos

But what of the broader response to the music in late 19th century Austria and late 20th and early 21st century Estonia?

In spite of Bruckner’s initial missteps in Vienna, the patronage of Wagner helped elevate Bruckner’s symphonies into the realm of mainstream popularity across the Germanic world.

This success continued after Bruckner’s death in the 20th century. The National Socialist Government of Germany promoted Bruckner’s music heavily, and indeed it was the second movement of Bruckner’s 7th symphony which was played on the radio upon the official announcement of Hitler’s death. Because Bruckner’s own ancient, simpleton values were so anathema to those of the Hitler Reich, Bruckner’s reputation did not suffer after the Second World War – and thanks to the wider proliferation of central European conductors in Western Europe, the USSR and America; Bruckner experienced something which approached popularity outside the Germanic world for the first time in earnest after the Second World War.

Likewise in spite of early difficulties and protracted conflicts with the Soviet authorities, Pärt has become nothing less than the most widely loved Estonian artist in the world, producing a music, the passion, and beauty of which transcends any potential ideological divides. It is a very fair statement that Pärt is the most widely listened living composer in the world; someone whose music has achieved what Nietzsche referred to as a cosmopolitan appeal, in respect of the universality of Beethoven’s continued popularity during a late 19th century when music and nationalism became increasingly bound up.

Thus we have two parallel lives. Two composers who shared a pathos, who shared a lack of concern for the trends and habits of their era, and two composers who achieved popularity at home and abroad in spite of this.


Cover: Arvo Pärt and Anton Bruckner. The images are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Review: Kristjan Järvi’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker

Kristjan Järvi made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in a performance teaming with the inexhaustible energy for which the youngest son of Neeme Järvi is renowned. In an age where conductors often approach music with an overly academic ethos, one which would restrict the aural size and metaphysical scope of the music, Kristjan Järvi has remained committed to pushing boundaries and expanding horizons.

The reductive approach to musical performance is no more apparent than in contemporary performances of Beethoven. In spite of this worrying trend, Järvi has gone against the grain and recently recorded Mahler’s revolutionary re-orchestration of Beethoven’s 9th symphony with the Tonkünstler Orchestra. It is one of only three commercially available recordings of Mahler’s re-working of Beethoven’s 9th.

Living in an era when orchestral conductors appear to increasingly specialise in one or two specific genres of music, it is refreshing that Kristjan Järvi is equally comfortable conducting in the high classical tradition, as he is in the romantic tradition. His recordings of modern music are likewise highly compelling, and are frequently lauded as such. His 2010 recording of Pärt’s 3rd symphony is universally regarded as the definitive version of Pärt’s most well-known symphony.

Järvi’s debut in front of what is quite possibly the world’s finest orchestra, was long over-due, especially since his brother and father have led the Berliners on many occasions. The Berliner Philharmoniker are indeed an orchestra whose sound is instantly recognisable. Whilst the sound has evolved over the decades, it is the rich, heavy, lush yet aggressive sound developed by Herbert von Karajan that has remained with the orchestra ever since the death of their longest serving director in 1989. Standing before such a band for the first time might well be an intimidating experience for a young maestro, but for Järvi this did not seem to be the case. He appeared entirely in his element, commanding the podium with his overtly expressive and at times dance like gesticulations.

Kristjan Järvi

The centrepiece of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony, one of the most important pieces in the symphonic repertoire. Whilst the 4th is a widely performed piece of music, it is all too easy for a conductor to take the majesty of such a piece for granted.

A conductor ill at ease with Tchaikovsky’s compositions may will sit back and allow the deeply involved melodies to act as a substitute for a more individuated voicing of the piece. It is crucial however to remember that whilst Tchaikovsky is rightly remembered as one of orchestral music’s most able melodists, Tchaikovsky was also a master at transforming complex harmonies into lucid aural narratives. He was also far more adventurous with rhythmic syncopation and a far more innovative orchestral arranger than he is often given credit for.

These more subtle elements of Tchaikovsky’s genius became instantly apparent from the opening horn fanfare of the first movement. Järvi was not content to suck the rhythmic and dramatic life out of the symphony by allowing the melodies to float lugubriously over metronomic tempi. His heavy emphasis on tempo rubato and dramatic dynamic surges place him in the proudest tradition of Tchaikovsky performance alongside the great masters of the 20th century; the titans Svetlanov and Mravinsky in particular. In many ways, Järvi ‘s combination of comfort and ability to take creative risks with music speaks to a broader phenomenon within the Estonian classical tradition.

Estonia’s classical music culture has remained unique amongst the great European traditions of classical music. Since the middle of the 19th century, virtually all important orchestral music has sprung either from the Austro-Germanic tradition or the artistically polar Russian tradition. Smaller, but significant central European traditions of orchestral music such as the Czech, Hungarian or Polish traditions have always been more stylistically related to Vienna than to either St. Petersburg or Moscow. Inversely, the music of the Caucuses and Balkans has always been more implicitly related to the Russian tradition than that of the Austro-Germanic tradition.

Estonian performance and composition is not so easy to place. It is something rather apart from both behemoth traditions, this in spite of the majority of Estonian musicians during the 20th century receiving their training in either Leningrad or Moscow. Because of this however, Estonian classical performers like the Järvis have been embraced by audiences from both of these grand traditions and indeed in the wider world. Instances of tension between traditions witnessed in Svetlanov’s punchy, rhythmically explosive Bruckner, so alien to the Germanic ear or Karajan’s steady and heavily legato laden approach to Rimsky-Korsokov so alien to the Russian ear, represent stylistic tensions that mostly bypass Estonian musicians who exist in a sphere outside the tacit dogmas of the two larger traditions.

This is why the two smaller pieces from Kristjan Järvi’s performance in Berlin did not feel as though they were merely incidental to Tchaikovsky’s grand 4th. Carl Neilson’s En Fantasirejse til Færøerne was played with a kind of intensity that made the piece by the post-romantic composer spring to life in a highly refreshing way, and likewise – Järvi’s deeply meditative, yet never undramatic reading of Olivier Messiaen’s L’Ascension demonstrated that it is indeed possible to place a deeply impressionistic piece in a mostly romantic programme without doing so by exploiting the resonant pathos of the larger romantic piece.

The response of the deeply critical audience in the Philharmonie to Järvi’s performance was highly reassuring. Järvi received resounding applause from the Berlin audience, not least after the heroic coda of the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony.

One can only hope that Kristjan Järvi will be making many more appearances in Berlin over the coming years. Indeed, as the Berliner Philharmoniker have not had a German or Austrian director since 1996, the possibility of an Estonian director of the most forward looking orchestra in Europe is more promising than one could have imagined just 20 years ago. Until then, Estonia and the wider classical world will await the next appearance by the youngest and perhaps most energetic of the Järvi’s before one of the world’s top music ensembles.


Cover: Kristjan Järvi (photos courtesy of and Kristjan Järvi).

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