Tõnu Kõrvits: Mirror (ECM New Series 2327)


Tõnu Kõrvits

Anja Lechner violoncello
Kadri Voorand voice
Tõnu Kõrvits kannel
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded February 2013, Methodist Church, Tallinn
Recording engineer: Tanel Klesment
Mixed December 2014 in Tallinn by Maido Maadik, Manfred Eicher, Tõnu Kõrvits, and Tõnu Kaljuste
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 18, 2016

Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth…. He eliminated certain symbols as over-obvious, such as the repeated striking of the clock, the music. Nothing hurried him. He omitted, he condensed, he amplified.
–Jorge Luis Borges, “The Secret Miracle”

Mirror documents a specially curated performance of music by Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits given on February 6, 2013. From a composer of great variety, here we find a microscopic array built around Estonia’s choral heritage. With particular emphasis on the music of Veljo Tormis, whom Paul Griffiths in his liner notes affirms “was evidently a father figure for Kõrvits, and there is something in this recording of a tradition being received by one generation from another,” the program treats human voices as expressions of soil and soul. Griffiths goes on to describe Tormis’s instinct to fortify what makes Estonia’s choral music unlike any other—a politically subversive move in a country wrapped in Soviet chains for much of the elder composer’s life. Such independent spirit peeks through the veneer of history in Peegeldused Tasasest Maast (Reflections from a Plainland). Written in 2013 for cello and choir, it is a fantasy on a song by Veljo Tormis with words by political poet Paul-Eerik Rummo. With a transparency as only the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir can evoke, the voices weave a tapestry of shimmering shadows while the cello of Anja Lechner keeps them tethered like a prayer to earth-hugging flesh. A touch of kannel, an Estonian zither played her by Kõrvits himself, at the end foreshadows the instrument’s foregrounded presence in Tasase Maa Laul (Song of the Plainland). Cushioned in the forested voice of Kadri Voorand, this 2008 composition’s cries for peace and stability, planted in distant plains, reflect upon the suite for strings between them. Dating from 2010, Labürindid (Labyrinths) is as intimate as it is wide-ranging in feel and color, and shares a possible affinity with Erki-Sven Tüür, if in a more delicate vein. Over the course of seven parts, the last of which is like the watering of the preceding six seeds, Kõrvits paints with every bow in compound strokes of emotional transference.

Seitsme Linnu Seitse Und (Seven Dreams of Seven Birds) for cello, choir and strings, sets words by Maarja Kangro and Tõnu Kõrvits. Dating from 2009 and revised in 2012, this textural wonder, rightly described by Griffiths as “at once a choral suite and cello concerto,” finds voices stretched like a sky-blue page for Lechner’s avian cursive. Also in seven parts, it opens with fully formed life. The third part, which features a cello cadenza amid the whistling choir, is a dawn chorus in reverse, while the seventh shows unity through variation. Lechner’s playing, as always, is thoroughly considered, free yet controlled. As a translator, she understands what Kõrvits has not written into the score and draws out that subtext with utmost respect.

The last choral work is the Tormis-inspired Viimane Laev (The Last Ship). From 2008, its scoring for male choir, bass drum and strings, with words by Juhan Smuul, elicits a somber drama. Like Tormis’s finest oceanic excursions, including 1979’s Songs Of The Ancient Sea and 1983’s Singing Aboard Ship, it describes through the process of being described. Our postlude comes in the form of Laul (Song). Originally composed in 2012 for cello and (mostly pizzicato) strings, then revised for this performance, it is a fully contoured channel from light into darkness.

As in the Borges quote above, Kõrvits is one who reduces rather than elaborates. His notecraft is smooth as bone, given tendons and nerves through the listening.

Veljo Tormis: Forgotten Peoples (ECM New Series 1459/60)

Veljo Tormis
Forgotten Peoples

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded February 1990, Tapiola Church, Finland
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Paul Hillier

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

During the final years of the Soviet occupation in the Baltic states, Estonia took charge in a characteristic way by staging a series of peaceful demonstrations in demand of sovereignty. These came to be known as the Singing Revolution. Two high points of this resistance revolved around the annual Song of Estonia festival, held in the capital city of Tallinn. On 11 September 1988, 300,000 citizens gathered in solidarity and sang old songs until sunrise, uncaring of the reproach such a blazon act might incur. During the same festival the following year, and with a similarly sized crowd surrounded by armed Soviet troops, voices broke out into the Estonian national anthem, still forbidden under the current communist regime. Throughout this censorious period, composer Veljo Tormis found his politics nourished by song, as evidenced in the ban of his more passivist compositions. Yet despite this censure, if not because of it, Tormis’s music only gained popularity. At the heart of his compositional output, containing some 500 choral works, is the regilaul, a song form stemming from the oral traditions of the Balto-Finnic peoples. Regilaulud are distinguished by their call-and-response structure, but add a unique twist: a soloist’s line is taken up at the last word by the chorus, while the chorus’ last line is subsequently taken up by the soloist, thus creating a musical “chain” to which any number of dynamic elements may be linked.

The music of Tormis, who retired from composing in 2000, nevertheless continues to thrive in worldwide performances and recordings such as the one under review here. One unfortunate side effect of this increasing popularity is the way in which the Estonian composer has become romanticized. Many reviewers—which, to be fair, often have only scant liner notes to work from—paint a rather Bartókian image of Tormis: the heroic anthropologist trekking through outlying villages in order to rescue the final vestiges of their oral culture by preserving them in a more widely accessible form. Although Tormis did some minimal fieldwork, and even then only as compiler, he relied heavily on the extensive and no less significant collections of Finnish and Estonian language institutes and university archives. Nevertheless, Tormis holds to his source material as something to be nurtured. As the famous quote above implies, he sees himself as a mediator and advocates a syncretic approach, which takes into account not only the song’s “original” function, but also its new setting and (re)presentation.

Unustatud rahvad (Forgotten Peoples), written between 1970-89, is Tormis’s magnum opus: a collection of 51 songs, each one more immersive than the last, divided into six cycles representing the Livonians, Votians, Izhorians, Ingrian Finns, Vepsians, and Karelians. The first of these, Liivlaste pärandus (Livonian Heritage) is also the earliest, and shows a composer searching for his own voice in the voices of others. Its melodic structures comprise a deft blend of chromatism, orthodox chant, and sustained drones, across which monophonic lines are drawn with careful textual attention. Herding calls, an amusing satire of patrilineal inheritence, and one content little mouse all play equal roles in this colorful set. The seven pieces that make up the Vadja pulmalaulud (Votic Wedding Songs) bristle with more overt regilaul qualities. Their cyclical structure seems to underscore the matrimony at their center. Every aspect of the celebration falls under the music’s watchful eye: from the “Arrival of the Wedding Guests,” through the obligatory “Mockery Singing” and dowry distribution, to the charming “Praising the Cook,” which reminds us even in the most heightened moments of frivolity to acknowledge those whose hard work have made that frivolity possible. In these songs, one can almost smell the provisions, feel the textures of the fibers being worn, feast upon the gentle lay of the landscape and the solid colors of the architecture, which linger in the senses long after the final decrescendo. What follows is the longest and most dramatic cycle. Isuri eepos (Izhorian Epic) begins with a creation myth and launches into a retrospective of Izhorian principles, divine musings, and customs. Women’s voices dominate here, both in the singing and in the narration, adding an emphatic power matched nowhere else in the entire collection. Ingerimaa õhtud (Ingrian Evenings) is more domestic in both feeling and content, focusing as it does on the mundane pleasures of village life. A bare sense of rhythm and unwavering inner energy lend these songs a rustic flavor that speaks directly to the heart. Vepsa rajad (Vepsian Paths) consists of fifteen children’s miniatures. The songs exist only in fragments, but their brevity only underscores their joyful evocativeness. Highlights include the delightful “Pussy-cat,” which purrs and meows just as one might hope, and the melodic but bittersweet “Forced to Get Married,” with its gorgeous glissandi from the sopranos and motherly alto responses. Finally, Karjala saatus (Karelian Destiny) presents us with five examples of Tormis’s most profoundly developed choral sensibilities, culminating in the masterful “Lullaby,” with its promises of comfort and salvation.

This is a culturally and musically important collection sung by one of the world’s finest vocal collectives. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir seems to have a limitless supply of breath. Yet while this music certainly does draw in faraway listeners, it also casts a powerful cultural message into a world that had shunned it for so long. This is part of what makes Forgotten Peoples so potent. By the same token, Tormis himself has said that his “promotional” approach to folksong is just as instructive to his own people as it is to the global market, which may or may not see his music as little more than a niche to be filled. He is not advocating a revival, nor is he looking to return to way of life forever lost. Rather, he is using his music as a way of claiming these songs for his own, in the hopes that others will feel them as theirs. Either way, the astoundingly committed performances and ECM’s well-balanced recording—itself significant for having been produced before Estonia regained its independence—ensure these peoples will be anything but forgotten.

For the most balanced perspective on Tormis available in English, I cannot recommend highly enough Mimi S. Daitz’s insightful book Ancient Song Recovered: The Life and Music of Veljo Tormis, from which some of the information for this review was gathered.

<< Louis Sclavis Quintet: Rouge (ECM 1458)
>> Edward Vesala/Sound & Fury: Invisible Storm (ECM 1461)