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Veljo TORMIS (b. 1930)
Bridge of Song (1981)
Singing Aboard Ship (1983)
Bride’s Farewell (1990)
Kihnu Island Wedding Songs (1959)
Seventeen Estonian Wedding Songs (1993)
Three Estonian Game Songs (1995)
Four Estonian Lullabies (1989)
Estonian Radio Choir/Toomas Kapten
Recorded: Merchant Guild Hall, Tallinn, Estonia, January 1994
WARNER APEX 0927-49871-2 [58:29]

Unlike the selection of choral songs released by Carus Verlag (CV 83.400, review) that includes a couple of ‘original’ choral works, the present selection entirely consists of folk-song arrangements. The texts of Bridge of Song and Bride’s Farewell are taken from the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. The expressive and technical range of the music is quite varied. Some settings, such as the delightful Seventeen Estonian Wedding Songs (all of which are extremely short) and the beautifully moving Four Estonian Lullabies, are fairly straightforward whereas others – such as the beautiful Bridge of Song – are more complex, formally speaking, and rather more polyphonic in layout. All however retain the freshness and directness of expression displayed in the Tormis choral works. His settings also display a rich sound palette characterising each song according to ideas expressed in the texts. Singing Aboard Ship is a striking example of Tormis’s resourceful handling of material: the undulating accompaniment, sung by the main chorus, aptly suggests the flow of water and lazy waves gently splashing on the river’s bank and does so in simple but very effective fashion. Other examples abound. As the author of the insert notes rightly suggests, Tormis literally ‘orchestrates’ his choral settings, thus providing considerable variety of tone. A good example of this is the eleventh section of Seventeen Estonian Wedding Songs in which the chorus at times evokes the playing of the rural bagpipes.

Structurally, these songs build on repetition, directly inspired by the traditional runo singing. This is often alluded to in many works by Estonians whose minimalism is totally unrelated to that of, say, Reich or Adams. It took me some time to accept the view that the minimalist writing found in Pärt and other Baltic composers was really influenced by Baltic folk music. Two years ago, however, I was able to attend some folk singing in Lithuania that completely convinced me: that sort of minimalism is really an important aspect of Baltic folk music, and is often of a type more subtle than that of the American minimalists.

The music is also characterised by some unexpected harmonic twists and some surprising modulations enhancing the expressive strength of these settings. Tormis’s settings are hugely varied, in turn rumbustious and dreamy, ironic and tender. Ultimately they prove Constant Lambert entirely wrong. Yes, you may repeat a folk tune, but you can do so with considerable subtlety. This is what Tormis brilliantly does in his folk settings.

These performances by the Estonian Radio Choir recorded under the composer’s supervision are superlatively sung throughout, with obvious enjoyment and conviction.

If ECM’s magnificent double-CD set (Forgotten Peoples on ECM New Series 1459/60) remains my first choice, simply because it demonstrates Tormis’s mastery to the full, the present release – now re-issued at bargain price – is warmly recommended as the best possible introduction to Tormis’s folk settings.

Hubert Culot


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