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, 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.

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.

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A Hilliard Songbook (ECM New Series 1614/15)


The Hilliard Ensemble
A Hilliard Songbook: New Music For Voices

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded March/April 1995, March 1996 at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Those who approach this album like I did—that is, only after listening to the Hilliard Ensemble’s many early music recordings—may be in for a surprise. Whether that surprise is a pleasant one or not may depend on the listener’s openness to new sounds. The opening convulsion that is Barry Guy’s aphasic Un coup de dés would seem to foreshadow a bumpy ride. Its whirlwind of extended double bass techniques and choral acrobatics leaves us hard pressed to find our bearings. The score, Guy tells us, encourages improvisation and even the modification of what has already been written. Using a section from a Mellarmé poem, which likens the process of thought to a mere dice-throw, the piece works its way into our ears like a dwarfing star. It is abstract, agitated, and unsettling, yet full of gracious detail we cannot help but enjoy. The Hilliards demonstrate that they can execute a piece of such technical difficulty and “modern” sensibility with as much fluidity as they approach their more familiar repertoire—at least insofar as their recordings are concerned, for they have always been known for juxtaposing contemporary works with those of bygone ages in their live performances. And then we get the short and sweet Only, the earliest published composition of Morton Feldman. In less time than it takes to microwave a frozen dinner, we are utterly transported by Feldman’s visceral melodic rendering of a Rilke sonnet, brought to its fullest fruition through the angelic voice of Rogers Covey-Crump. It is a folk song for its own sake, a funereal hymn for the living. This sets off a spate of shorter pieces by Ivan Moody and Piers Hellawell. Moody’s viscous miniatures live up to the composer’s name, taking us through a range of emotional colors. Endechas y Canciones sets Arabic-Spanish poetry from the 15th and 16th centuries. The second of these, “Endechas a la muerte de Guillén Peraza,” is a dirge from the Canary Islands that pulls at the heartstrings with a pace slow and focused, like moderated speech. The Hilliard Songbook by Hellawell, on the other hand, is a whimsical journey through A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), the celebrated Elizabethan portraitist. This is the centerpiece of the album, both in title and in song. The treatise’s idiosyncratic descriptions of color inspired the composer to recreate those very colors with voices. Regulating the piece is a refrain taken up each time by one member of the ensemble: “True beautie of each perfect cullor in his full perfection in perfect hard bodies and very transparent.” Through this many-hued ode we are given valuable insight into not only the Hilliards’ vocal art, but also into the visual mind of their namesake.

Of the longer pieces represented here, Paul Robinson’s Incantation is textually the broadest. The words are adopted from Byron’s poem of the same name—what Robinson calls a “vitriolic curse”—through which the composer sought to foreground the Hilliards’ sonority over the work being performed. As the music marks its slow path through a rather morbid text, we feel the voices blend into a single destination. Kullervo’s Message, by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, recounts a dramatic episode from The Kalevala, Finland’s nineteenth-century national epic. From a line of skillfully harmonized textual lifts, Tormis hangs a series of messages by which the eponymous tragic hero is informed of the deaths of his loved ones, even as he prepares to exact his revenge upon those whose ridicule led him to such self-destructive fervor. Tormis’s melodic and programmatic colors are ideally suited to their source material, moving with the virtuosity of a master storyteller. Scottish composer James MacMillan offers his own epic statement in the form of …here in hiding…, a deceptively simple mesh of the poem “Adoro te devote” by St. Thomas Aquinas in both its Latin and English forms.

The remaining pieces comprise a flavorful mixture of words and musical ideas. Two exemplary statements from Arvo Pärt, And One Of The Pharisees… and the splendid vocal version of Summa, make fine company of Elizabeth Liddle’s Whale Rant, which takes its cues from Moby-Dick, and works its music like clock hands, with one arm counting the hours while another traces a faster, larger circle. The second hand becomes invisible, implied only in the vocal gestures of the sensitive performance, and is forever lost in the ocean of its source. Joanne Metcalf’s Music For The Star Of The Sea, is a thinly veiled meditation on the words “O ave maris stella” (“O hail star of the sea”) that extends the possibility of a single utterance into a vast Marian fabric. Sharpe Thorne by John Casken paints an image of Christ impaled, while Michael’s Finnissy’s Stabant autem iuxta crucem praises the one who bore him. And in Canticum Canticorum Ivan Moody again dazzles with this setting of verses from the Song of Songs and its loving incorporation of Byzantine chant.

Those wishing to hear the range of the Hilliards’ technical prowess will want to check out this collection for sure. This humble quartet sings with such clear articulation of phrase that one accepts every note like the nourishing morsel it is. While the music is for the most part contemplative and lovely, never ceasing to fascinate even at its least accessible moments, much of it feels spun from the same thread. The pieces by Ivan Moody stand out here as being the most well thought out and textually aligned, while the Hellawell, Tormis, and Guy enchant with their distinctive flair. That being said, it seems a shame to think that cultures outside a Eurocentric Judeo-Christian context should be shunted here. Considering that nearly all of these pieces were written for the Hilliard Ensemble, and that some of their composers were involved in the Hilliard Summer School led by the ensemble in residency, a narrow scope is perhaps understandable. Geographical limitations aside, the traveling instinct is still there in the Hilliards’ adventurous spirit, captured in every flawless phrase, in every committed performance that continues to issue from their very throats.