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Lepo SUMERA (1950-2000)
To Reach Yesterday

Scenario for flute, bass clarinet and piano (1995)
Two Pieces from the Year 1981 for piano
The Silent Odalisque for flute solo (1997)
To Reach Yesterday for cello and piano (1993)
Two Sonnets of Shakespeare for voice and piano (1999)
Stars for voice and piano (2000)
Pille Lill (soprano); Marje Lohuaru (piano)
The Reval Ensemble
Recorded February – June 2002. Chamber Hall of the Estonian Academy of Music. DDD
MEGADISC MDC 7814 [53:24]

Had the life of Lepo Sumera not been cut tragically short by heart failure in 2000 at the premature age of fifty, I suspect that his music would have been far better known to British audiences.

Sumera led something of a double musical life, combining composing with a reputation as one of the foremost activists, teachers and administrators in Estonian musical life. So much so that from 1989 to 1992 he served as Estonia’s Minister of Culture, subsequently taking up the post of Chairman of the Estonian Composer’s Union which he held until his death.

On a musical level and not unlike his younger Estonian compatriot Erkki-Sven Tüür (who incidentally is acknowledged with special thanks in the sleeve-note), Sumera’s music underwent a number of radical stylistic metamorphoses before he ultimately found what he felt to be his true voice. In his early years Sumera embraced the avant-garde with both arms including a pioneering contribution to the development of electro-acoustic music, before subsequently undergoing a ‘sea change’ in 1981 (hence the significance of the above Two Pieces from the Year 1981) when he adopted a new-found language of diatonic post-modernity. This manifested itself in a form of minimalism that the writer of the sleeve-note attributes to Sumera having developed from the "archaic Estonian runo song"; the more familiar American school of minimalism being pretty much unknown behind the iron curtain until the mid-1980s. As can be heard from these pieces, the results of this change often allow materials to sit side by side in unconcealed stylistic contrast whilst other pieces attempt to smooth over the differences to some degree.

Although numerous parallels that can be drawn between Sumera and Tüür, the work of the latter is perhaps the more muscular of the two. Arguably it demonstrates the most inventive and probing compositional intellect. However, this useful collection of, spanning the eighteen years from the crucial Two Pieces from the Year 1981 to the song, Stars, one of the last pieces he wrote before his death, show Sumera to be a composer with an undoubted gift for communicating directly and intuitively with the listener.

At one level the Two Pieces have relatively little in common other than the year of their composition and the rhythmic impetus that permeates them. The first, The Piece from the Year 1981, weaves a gradually embellished chain-like melody over a hypnotic, ostinato-like accompaniment. The music certainly draws the listener into its world and Sumera clearly thought highly of the work for he used it as the basis for his First Symphony of the same year. The second of the two pieces, Pardon, Fryderyk! takes as its starting point the Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4 by Chopin, again employing ostinato figurations in the left hand but this time allowing the melody more freedom to take on a noticeably eastern feel. In a quasi-improvised central passage the pianist drums on the body of the instrument although on this recording the "drumming" is performed by a tap dancer, as originally envisaged by the composer and emphasising the importance of rhythm in Sumera’s music. Scenario, of 1995, progresses from an angular unison melodic opening featuring the whole ensemble via a series of sharply contrasting episodes, which range from the complex and more overtly avant-garde to passages of introspective repose. As with Tüür, Sumera allows these contrasting materials to co-exist with no attempt to weld their respective sound worlds together, until the final bars meet in repeated unison consonance. The Silent Odalisque is the first of four related pieces, being the only one of the four for solo flute (the others are all scored for flute, guitar and cello). The material once again explores territory of considerable virtuosity and extended technique interwoven with melodic passages of relative diatonic simplicity. The work which lends its title to the disc, To Reach Yesterday, is the most impressive of the six works on the disc, effectively an impassioned, ten minute sonata for cello and piano that explodes into rhythmically figurative dynamism shortly before its mid-point. The intriguing title is not what it seems, stemming from the composer losing the score from his computer when the machine crashed. Consequently with the commission deadline passed, he spent a night writing the work out by hand from memory, hence To Reach Yesterday. The two brief vocal works that conclude the disc set both stem from the final months of the composer’s life, a haunting setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 128 all the more atmospheric for its simplicity, together with a more strident and less effective setting of Sonnet 121. Stars sets a poem by exiled Estonian poetess Marie Under and like the first of the Shakespeare sonnets adopts Sumera’s simpler melodic style to create a song of poignant directness.

The musicians, all of whom are graduates of the Estonian Academy of Music in Tallin, acquit themselves well and are aided by a clear, well-detailed recording.

In conclusion, as with so much music now emerging from the Baltic states, Sumera’s music is well worthy of exploration. His substantial output, including six symphonies, was cruelly curtailed whilst he was at the apparent height of his powers. It was with a final biting irony therefore, that one of his last major works, Heart Affairs (1999) took its impulse from actual cardiographic charts of the rhythmic patterns of the human heart.

Christopher Thomas

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