TORMIS (b. 1930) Two Songs to words by Ernst Enno (1948, 1998)
[7.56] Three Estonian game songs (1973) [7.17] Three songs from the epic ĎKalevís Soní (1954,
1960) [10.43] Livonian Heritage (1970) [16.48] Singing aboard ship (1983) [5.00] Autumn Landscapes (1964) [9.03] Four Estonian Lullabies (1989) [6.59] Childhood memory (Herding Calls) (1982)[8.02]
rec. All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 13-16 July
2007 HYPERION CDA67601 [71.50]
you visit the open air museum just west of the Estonian
capital, Tallinn, it might come as some surprise that
the complex was troubled by arson - something particularly
damaging to traditional wooden buildings. This was because
the concept of an open air museum, with its examples
of buildings from different local cultures, ran contrary
to the unifying Russification which the occupying Soviet
authorities were keen on. A similar view can be taken
of folk-song, which helped inculcate a sense of Nationalism.
To us, the use of folk-song may be cosily redolent of
the past and scarcely political at all. To a composer
of Veljo Tormis's generation, living in Soviet-occupied
Estonia, folk-songs could become very dangerous.
was 14 when the Estonia Soviet Republic was created in
1944 - the country having been occupied by the Russians
or the Germans since 1940. As a composer, he was Russian-trained
but he managed to walk the tightrope between official
censure and writing self-serving pieces. He carefully
negotiated the pitfalls, learning from his organ teacher
Edgar Arro, that certain types of folk-song were acceptable
to Moscow. The anti-formalist Soviet authorities needed
composers who could write the right type of music. Tormis
must have been aware of the balancing act. After all
he was present at Prokofievís funeral in 1953 and Shostakovich
was the chairman of the jury at his graduation in 1956.
his output included music of all forms, including that
particularly Soviet form, the epic cantata. But a rare
visit beyond Estoniaís borders, to Hungary, in 1962 gave
him the opportunity to buy scores by Bartůk and KodŠly.
From then on his output was almost exclusively folk-influenced
new recorded selection of his music, from Stephen Layton
and the Holst Singers, spans almost the entirety of Tormisís
career. The first of two songs to works by Ernst Enno
dates from when Tormis was 18 and the second dates from
1998. These are original material, without any embedded
folk references. Similarly the three settings of poems
from the poetic epic Kalevís Song and Autumn
Landscapes are without any folk material, but all
the remaining pieces on the disc use folk material as
is fascinating is how the one blends into the other,
that Tormisís discovery of how to use folk material in
his art made a great deal of sense in terms of how he
wrote and the sound-world of his music. Tormis had in
fact flirted in his early days with serialism, but in
a rather unenthusiastic way and it would be difficult
to label him a true serialist at any point in his career.
settings of the poems from Kalevís Son are inevitably
folk-influenced, even if the musical material is original.
The text comes from a national epic which is embedded
in Estonian folk history. Similarly Autumn Landscapes,
which sets seven poems by Viivi Luik, was written in
the light of his first visit to Hungary and the influence
of KodŠly can be detected.
first major folk work was Calendar Songs, a cycle
of 29 songs. This was followed by the fruits of a trip
to north-western Latvia, which triggered Tormisís fascination
with the Finno-Ugric people of that region. The result
is a group of 51 songs of which Livonian Heritage is
the first part. This is more than a simple musical ethnographic
exercise, Tormis does far more than preserve the songs.
Instead he weaves them into his own imaginative world,
giving us a distinctive evocation of Livonia.
the basic melodies are limited in range, but out of them
Tormis creates something hypnotic. This is true of the Three
Estonian Game Songs, where Tormis uses simple means
to create a rich scope. The Four Estonian Lullabies present
the material in a rather less complex way, leaving these
lovely melodies relatively unadorned. For me, the most
haunting piece on the disc is Childhood Melody which
uses herding calls remembered from his childhood.
is nothing strictly minimal about this music, though
Tormis uses material which is relatively simple and employs
repetition and other elements of minimalism. The results
are rich and complex.
music occupies a very distinctive world and it can take
some time to become accustomed to it. On first listening
his personal harmonic take on the music stands out and
gives a rather uniform feel to the disc. With greater
familiarity, comes appreciation of the subtleties of
have nothing but praise for Stephen Layton and the Holst
Singers. Their performances are spot-on throughout the
disc. You could imagine different interpretations perhaps,
but within their own parameters they give us finely honed,
musical accounts. The choir also provide some attractive,
uncredited solo voices in some of the songs.
an Estonian group might have given us a rougher, less
sophisticated performance in places, responding to the
dramatic context of the folk melodies in a way that non-Estonian
choirs might not. This is a matter of interpretation
and Tormisís publication of these pieces means that he
is able to countenance their performance by choirs from
sung some of this repertoire myself I have come to the
conclusion that it would be helpful to have some of it
sung in translation, so that we could appreciate rather
more vividly the interplay of music and text. The choirís
Estonian sounds convincing, but I would have loved to
have heard them sing some items in English, with its
gains of vividness and immediacy Ė at least for English
Estonian Chamber Choir has recorded much of this repertory.
They have recorded the whole of the Forgotten Peoples set
from which Livonian Heritage comes. But this new
disc is an excellent introduction to Tormisís art.
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