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Veljo TORMIS (b. 1930)
Vision of Estonia 1

Double Dedication (1983)
Vision of Estonia (1989/91)
The Viru Oath (1980)
Draught (1993)
Story of a Betrayer (1989)
The Last Ship (1981)
Hamlet’s Songs (1964/5)
Litany of Thunder (1974)a
Our Shadows (1969)
Herding Calls (1982)b
The Sarcasms of Juhan Liiv (1979)c
A Conscript’s Escape from Toompea Castle Home to Kuusalu (1969)
Estonian National Male Choir; Aile Asszonyi (soprano)b; Margus Vaht (bass druma, whipc); Ants Soots
Recorded: Estonia Concert Hall, June and August 2000
ALBA NCD 17 [70:54]

 

Unlike those featured in other recordings of Tormis’ choral music that I have reviewed so far, the choral songs in this disc are mostly original settings of Estonian poems of the 20th Century, and some of them have an overtly political character, especially when heard in the historical context that led to the Estonian independence and the fall of the former Soviet Union. In this respect, some of these poems are particularly clear, as in Vision of Estonia (on excerpts from various texts by Juhan Liivi dating from the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century) : "One day there will be a state of Estonia". Or for that matter, those of The Viru Oath ("We should take up once again the torch/that Tuglas let drop from his hand/and not be discouraged by enemy hordes..."). Incidentally, this highly virtuosic setting bears a striking resemblance to the central section of Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia; and calls for some considerably virtuosity. To a certain extent, too, Story of a Betrayer (words by Eino Leino) seems to carry an overt political message, referring as it does to a man who betrayed his friends to protect his family. The often humorous A Conscript’s Escape from Toompea Castle Home to Kuusalu also carries a subliminal political message ("I ran away from my masters...").

Other settings here, however, overtly reflect Tormis’ prime concerns : nature, Estonia’s past and old pagan rites. So, the fairly impressive Incantatio Maris Aestuosi (on a text from the Kalevala in Latin translation) in which folk-like tunes, sometimes reminiscent of ancient liturgical chant, alternate with vividly descriptive elements almost graphically evoking the tempestuous sea of the title (whistling sounds) in the central section and the peaceful breathing of the appeased sea in the beautifully evocative coda. In an earlier review, I commented on Tormis’ "vocal orchestration", of which this setting is another stunning example. Old Estonian pagan rites are conjured up in the extraordinary Litany of Thunder, also characterised by a sparse, but telling use of the bass drum. This is a near-cousin to the equally striking Curse upon Iron (not recorded here) featuring a shaman drum. Herding Calls for soprano and male choir brings us back into Tormis’ familiar territory in which peasant songs (herds’ calls in this case) are woven into a short tone poem of some sort. This is, as far as I am concerned, the real gem in this selection. I was also delighted to hear Aile Asszonnyi’s clear soprano voice again. (Indeed, she was one of the twelve finalists of the 2004 Queen Elizabeth Song Competition of last May. During the semi-finals, she sang a delightful short cycle Kolm Lille by Tormis, and this fine performance is now available in the two-CD set released after the competition [Ambroisie AMB 9956].)

Finally, some of these settings are just, so to say, part songs on texts appealing to the composer such as Double Dedication written on words by Gustav Suits to commemorate the centenary of this poet’s birth, Hamlet’s Songs for double male choir on words by Rummo or the beautifully lyrical Our Shadows on words by Jaan Kaplinski.

So, in short, a varied selection of original works by Tormis confirming his wide-ranging outlook and, needless to say, his remarkable flair for efficient, telling vocal writing. All works are superbly served by immaculate performances. This is a most desirable release, the more so that it brilliantly demonstrates the variety of Tormis’s skills.

As a footnote, I would like to mention a Finlandia disc that, I am afraid, passed rather unnoticed, and that includes two orchestral pieces by Tormis: the suite from the incidental music Ookean and the orchestral suite from the opera Luigelend (Finlandia 8573-89876-2). Well worth looking for.

Hubert Culot

 



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