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Sound Sample
Opening of Song of the Turkish War
Sound samples are removed after two months

Veljo TORMIS (b.1930)
Works for Men’s Voices
Pärimaalase lauluke (An Aboriginal Song) (1981) [2:31]
Kaksikpühendus – Diptühhon (Double Dedication – Diptych) (1983) [6:15]
Tõmbtuul (Crosswind) (1993) [4:13]
Meie varjud (Kord me tuleme tagasi)(Our Shadows (Once we will Reappear)) (1969) [4:39]
Sampo cuditur (Forging the Sampo) (1997/2003) [7:52] *
Piispa ja pakana (The Bishop and the Pagan) (1992) [10:05]
Incantatio maris aestuosi (Incantation for a Stormy Sea) (1996) [7:25]
Meestelaulud (Men’s Songs) – Nos.1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 8) (1964-65) [15:57]
Raua needmine (Curse upon Iron) (1972/2001) [10:17] *
Veljo Tormis (shaman drum; anvil); Stefan Engström (log drums; counter tenor); Emil Johannisson; Staffan Lindberg; Johannes Midgren (tenors); Johan Sternby; Erik Emilsson (basses); Martin Stervander (whistling)
Svanholm Singers/Sofia Söderberg Eberhard
* first recordings of versions for men’s voices
rec. Lomma kyrka, Lomma Skåne, 9-11 October, 6, 8 November 2006. DDD
Programme notes in English, German, French, Estonian
Estonian/Latin texts translated into English

The new Toccata Classics label has been created expressly to explore unjustly neglected repertoire. The small but growing Toccata catalogue reveals riches such as music by Baltic 20th- and 21st-century composers, music by neglected composers from earlier times such as Mysliveček, Taneyev, Nín and Kapsberger and treasures from British music of the likes of Donald Tovey, Havergal Brian and Matthew Taylor.

It is quite remarkable that a tiny country such as Estonia should produce more than its fair share of great conductors and remarkable composers. This is all the more notable when one considers how ‘young’ the country is as far as having any kind of classical music tradition. Although many of Estonia’s best-known composers were pupils of the ‘father of Estonian music’, Heino Eller (1887-1970), Veljo Tormis travelled to Moscow to study under Vissarion Shebalin. Tormis was fascinated by the ancient runic and shamanistic singing traditions of the Finno-Ugrian people (this includes Estonians). He was also heavily influenced by the choral music of Bartók and Kodály he experienced on a visit to Budapest in 1962. The vast majority of his large output is for a cappella choir and in choral circles he is now regarded as one of the most important living composers writing for massed voices, although he deserves far more widespread recognition than he currently attracts.

For those unfamiliar with Tormis’ music, let me say his choral music is totally unlike that of his compatriot and close contemporary Arvo Pärt. Whereas Pärt’s music is often serene and spiritual, that of Tormis is rugged, muscular, full-throated, packed with rhythmic drive and often reinforced with percussive effects. This is not to say it is any less accessible than Pärt’s works, only that it demands a very different mindset when listening. A large number of Tormis’ choral works are available on CD and nearly all the works on this disc are available elsewhere; many of them on the Visions of Estonia series of CDs on Alba dedicated to Tormis’ music. However, we are given here what I think is the first recording of the Aboriginal Song (although not so credited) and an opportunity to hear male-voice versions of two works originally written for women’s voices (Forging the Sampo) and mixed choir (Curse upon Iron). The latter work is Tormis’ most often performed and recorded work and its raw and terrifying power seems enhanced in the version here for men’s voices alone with the composer himself on a brutal shaman drum. Curse upon iron is a metaphor for man’s wanton misunderstanding of and disregard for the effect his development of destructive forces (weapons of mass destruction in particular) and the threat it poses to the planet and mankind. The symbolic words call for respect, understanding and education when dealing with powerful man-made forces.

None of the other works on the disc can claim the currency enjoyed by Curse upon iron but their quality is none the worse for that. The CD opens with the previously mentioned Aboriginal Song a short ‘little bit of a song’ as Tormis describes it in the excellent accompanying booklet. Here we get our first taste of the primeval vocal writing and primitive percussion effects Tormis uses so effectively throughout the disc. The word Aboriginal of the title is used in a generic way and actually refers to the composer’s compatriot Estonians. Using motives by Polynesians and Estonian Martinmas mummers, and with its references to traditional ancient rituals, so restricted in at the time of writing (1981), the piece was something of a stab at the old Soviet authorities. The other song which makes effective use of percussion is Forging the Sampo with a rather obvious imitation of the striking of an anvil and colourful log drums. Its text is taken from the Kalevala, that epic poem drawn from Finnish and Karelian folklore that so inspired Sibelius as well as other Nordic composers. The Kalevala also provides the text for Incantation for a Stormy Sea (in its Latin translation) and the inspiration behind Curse upon Iron.

The works on this disc that show the most obvious allegiance musically to ancient runic folk songs are those with Latin texts, The Bishop and the Pagan and Incantation for a Stormy Sea, fascinating mixtures of medieval-sounding chants and ingenious, colourful arrangements. No less ancient in their textual sources but much more modern-sounding are the testosterone-charged Men’s Songs – tales of battle, debauched craving and drink – complete with drunken slurring of words, whistling and the slapping of thighs!

The Svanholm Singers, founded in 1998, comprises only 20 voices but is a formidable choir with a massive sound. Under their obviously inspirational conductor, Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, they are more than technically and musically able to cope with the strenuous demands made upon them by Tormis’ often uncompromising music, while also managing to convey a grainy rustic quality to the sound. This is their recording début and I hope their discography grows quickly so that we can enjoy more of their exceptional artistry. The acoustics of the Lomma kyrka in Skåne suits the singers and the music perfectly, lending just the right degree of resonance to the music, allowing the words perfect clarity yet adding an appropriate bloom to the overall sound.

This disc presents absolutely superb performances of important and premier quality choral music with first rate sound and excellent booklet notes by the composer himself. This is a ‘must’ for any serious classical collection.

Derek Warby


see also review by Rob Barnett

Toccata Classics Catalogue


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