Heino Eller: Neenia (ECM New Series 1745)


Heino Eller

Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded August 1999, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek, meaning “wound.” The derivation seems apt: a wound leaves one prone to infection from invisible forces, while from it exudes the very stuff that keeps us alive. According to classical Freudian psychoanalysis, a healthy Ego redirects traumatic influence, thereby protecting us from overstimulation. Otherwise, the trauma festers within. Either way, the subject is spared the pain of being consciously aware of the affliction in question. Music, however, inflects this view somewhat differently. In that of Estonian composer Heino Eller (1887-1970), a distinctly autobiographical impulse floods us neither with catharsis nor with a working-through. It is, rather, a fullness of life that sees death not as non-existence but as one of many equal facets.

Eller’s stamp on Estonian concert music cannot be overstated: his was the spark that set a revolution aflame. His influence pulses on in the work of his many students. Arvo Pärt, for one, fondly remembers his composition teacher as a noble human being who nurtured an open and personal approach, as the founder of Estonia’s professional music scene, and above all as a musician of “strict logic.” Yet Eller’s personal life was also indelibly marked by a strictly illogical act: the murder of his wife, Anna, at the hands of occupying Nazis. It was during this period that his Lüüriline Süit (Lyric Suite, 1945), originally composed for piano but heard here in an orchestral reworking, came to fruition. The heartrending physicality of its mortal undercurrents breathes with the ache of living—a sound as only the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under Tõnu Kaljuste’s direction could elicit without need for the background sketched above. Each of its six movements is corporeally minded, a ballet of actors on a sociopolitical stage. In the final movement especially one notices the rhythmic sensibilities inherited by such progenitors as Erkki-Sven Tüür, only here they pick at a scab that will never heal. The depth of landscape is masterful, its contrasts of texture and time, of heaven and hell, indicative of all that follows.

The 1928 title composition is a memorial to friend Johannes Arro (1865-1928). A tone poem of majestic emotional depth, it undergoes constant color changes, each continuing the gloomy dramaturgy of the opening suite. The Five Pieces for String Orchestra (1953)—of which “Homeland Song,” says Pärt, is the Estonian equivalent of Sibelius’s Finlandia—unfolds in a more fragmentary, though no less organic, sense of architecture. Like that of Antonio Gaudi, straight lines are rare and there is a beginning at every end. Densities also vary: a solo violin draws a silver thread through the occasional needle, pocking the clouds with patches of sky. From lively dances to saturnine dips, the overall effect is stirring and reminds us that home is never far away, so long as one can find a song to share.

The concluding works of the program embrace the spectrum of Eller’s craft. The Sümfonietta (Sinfonietta, 1965-67), his last major composition, speaks in a language of catch and release. Every time it seems to tip, something swoops in to steady it. Agitations in the lower strings draw a screen as translucent as rice paper yet as impenetrable as an iron fortress as we are moved through a vast unraveling into the final dance, the spirit alive and forthcoming with its light. The promise of that light is realized in Eleegia (Elegy, 1931) for string orchestra and harp. Written in memory of another musical friend, Peeter Ramul (1881-1931), its lachrymose reflections turn into titanic hope, drifting through joyful memories to get there. All of which brings us full circle to the knowledge with which we began: namely, that something of our lives, whether given or taken away, persists beyond the measure of all the grief in the world.

The listener will be hard-pressed to locate a single abrasive maneuver in Eller’s compositions. Each is a coherent entity. There is feeling that the music will go on without ever resolving itself, but that in that lack of closure time becomes its own mirror. We may never understand the persistence of violence, but at least it may be temporarily diluted by the draw of a bow.

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