Sumera was an Estonian composer who studied in Tallinn, at first with Veljo Tormis, and then from 1968 to 1970 with Heino Eller. Sumera was Eller’s last student. He worked as a recording engineer for Estonian Radio. His reputation spans electro-acoustic and orchestral works. The latter include six symphonies (1981, 84, 88, 92, 95, 98), a piano concerto (1989-93) and a concerto grosso with solo parts for soprano sax, percussion and piano (2000).
The Cello Concerto starts with the cello, unaccompanied, accelerating through the angst barrier to be joined by the orchestra in a conflict ridden climax. The effect is rather akin to the macabre rustling of Kastchei’s creatures in Stravinsky’s The Firebird … but louder. If you know the Sallinen and Kokkonen concertos this is more Sallinen than Kokkonen. It is more melodramatic and clamant with incidents in which the orchestra vies with the cello with equality of arms. The movement ends with the cello ascending in hysteria towards the uttermost squealing heights of its range. The central movement is calmer – a sort of peaceful inscape where the range of expression includes moderate anxiety, passion (6.01) and a sort of self-lulled peace. The finale is energetic and rather suggestive of story-telling – the brusque horn-topped rocking activity (2.39) suggests Pohjola’s Daughter rising to a furious pell-mell for soloist and orchestra. This ends in a thunderously emphasised old-style peroration in which the writing for percussion is linked with that of Jon Leifs. The work is dedicated to both Lithuanian-born Geringas and to Paavo Järvi.
Musica Profana is densely heavy with thunderous Nyman-minimalist string writing rife with Tippett-like counterpointing. Gradually the textures become more transparent until clean violin sound emerges at 4.43. The music proceeds in episodes with brief silences dividing incidents.
The two movement Sixth Symphony was his last work. It is only 24 minutes long. It proceeds through a mesmerising stasis with a sub-text of tension. Fury is belted out in an intensified version of the outburst in the finale of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra with heaving writing for the drums and blaring brass. Quiet peals of descending Penderecki-cascading violins suggest some psychological complexity further developed in pecking and fleeing pizzicato (12.24). The second movement returns to the possessed and tensely thoughtful stasis of the start of the first movement and seems to drift in and out of a focus on the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The clarinet offers fragmented tenderness but mezzo-forte interjections from the brass suggest threat. Sumera often reaches towards an idyllic saturation as he also does in the Cello Concerto. It always seems to crumble before he can fully express it. In the closing pages of the Symphony he allowed himself that contented Philosophic mind.
The first five symphonies have already been recorded by Bis with the Malmö orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi. They are BIS-CD-660, 690 and 770.
Sumera’s last phase is reflected in tension (concerto), elation (Musica Profana) and in the hard-won contentment of the symphony.