Veljo Tormis: Litany To Thunder (ECM New Series 1687)

Veljo Tormis
Litany To Thunder

Veljo Tormis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded August 1998, Estonian Concert Hall, Tallinn
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“I do not use folk song. It is folk music that uses me.”
–Veljo Tormis

Since the 1992 release of Forgotten Peoples (link), the first major survey of Veljo Tormis to be released outside of Russia, ECM has paved an international appreciation of the Estonian composer, whose choral output exceeds 500 pieces. More than number, it is the melodic and textual content of those pieces that asks of the listener attention to source, meaning, and atmosphere. Although so much of Tormis’s work is drawn from Baltic folk traditions, his project is more one of expression than of preservation. He paints a distinct amalgam of texts and motifs, so that what we are left with is a sonic trajectory that moves ever forward. There is no group more qualified to follow that trajectory than the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste, these intensely talented singers breathe the music on Litany To Thunder as if it were their own.

dear girls dear maidens
where shall we go before the night sets in

How Can I Recognize My Home begins the program with a runo-song. This form finds its charge in the pre-Christian beliefs of the Baltic Finnic region, linking stanzas in a two-part round. On the surface a paean to nostalgia, it is more deeply a cartography of origins in which the voice becomes the thread that grows thinner with life and snaps only in death. Between the fatigue of travel and the cold springs that gurgle in wait of parched throats, the moon shines through it all like a maternal eye.

When the boys sang on the ship,
the girls thought it was an organ playing.
They could not imagine that the boys of their village
could sing so well.

Singing Aboard Ship (1983) is an Ingrian-Finnish folk song that features a call-and-response framework welded tight by the contralto of Karin Salumäe. The EPCC’s restraint is in full flower here, lapping at vessel’s edge with the reverence of lips pursed to a holy relic. It is an important setting, for it proves the power of song to be a guiding light through adversity. That the Finnic peoples exiled by the Soviet regime in the wake of World War II managed to preserve this tale is testament to that very fact.

You are earth-born, I am earth-born,
we are both black boil.

The Kalevala-inspired Curse Upon Iron (1972) showcases Tormis’s uncanny ability to soak us in a feeling. With its shamanic drum and tense use of silence, it peers into the heart of elemental forces and further into the human condition, which too often seeks to render those forces into tools of harm. The words reduce iron to its blood, to the evil that is its parasite. They even draw a line of affiliation to modern warfare, to the bane of technology. The furnace becomes a symbol of hatred fueled by temptation. Tenor Mati Turi and bass Allan Vurma bellow its fires, sustaining themselves through (if not on) sirens and shrieks of indignation.

And I, the child, then learned and learned,
I, little one, picked up the words.

In the wake of this aural forge, The Singer’s Childhood (1966) emerges as one of the most ethereal choral compositions to ever grace the ear. It is not only that its relative beauties are gentle enough to break apart from a sigh, but also because its appeal to nature as a source of art pulls our eyes from the upward swing of industrial and social progress and returns them to the wealth of activity and inspiration we have yet to regard on the ground.

The sea has fed us, the sea has watered us,
the sea has taken away many men from us.

Songs Of The Ancient Sea (1979) is overtly programmatic. Its technical admixture of whistling winds, cackling seagulls, and calling of shipmates lure the imagination from land. This piece is akin to performance storytelling, whereby the listener is not only engaged but also implicated in the action. A particularly moving section comes halfway through, when the tenor soloist laments a brother’s loss to the waves.

A hundred swordless men,
a thousand sworded men,
all the men from under a hill,
from the black earth.

The Bishop And The Pagan (1992/95) tells of Bishop Henry, whose death by the hands of a Finnish pagan farmer in 1158 is told from both sides. On the one hand is the memorial feast in Henry’s honor; on the other, an alliance with the victor. History changes places like shuffled cards, each obeisance a faltering shadow of reconciliation. In its careful balance of monastic solemnity and outright vilification, the vocal weave grows more resilient the more it is pulled.

Pour, Thunder, pour

The 1974 title composition for male choir shares similar touch points of battle, turning them into emblems of sacrifice. The meadows, overrun with chaos, funnel like sand through an hourglass, leaving a perfectly formed mountain of time.

I stepped into the house
a chair was brought to me
made of the bones of my geese

The Lost Geese is the forlorn tale of a maiden who must look after the geese on her family’s farm. The task proves more difficult than she imagined, however, when her geese are chased by demons into a spooky manor, where she is offered a meal of her charge. She throws their blood to the earth, where grows a tree populated with wildlife. This and How Can I Recognize My Home comprise the Two Estonian Runo-Songs, composed between 1973 and 1974. Sung as purely as the words are crystalline by sopranos Eve Härma and Kadri Ratt to the unobtrusive commentary of Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann at the piano, they wander without pause.

Tormis’s vitality and aesthetic properties connect the peoples of this music as the shore connects land and sea, establishing a fluid relationship between fields of geography and tradition. Images transcend linguistic barriers. In so being heard, they live anew.

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