Tõnu Kõrvits: Mirror (ECM New Series 2327)

Mirror

Tõnu Kõrvits
Mirror

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.