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Veljo 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]
Holst Singers/Stephen Layton
rec. All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 13-16 July 2007
HYPERION CDA67601 [71.50]
Experience Classicsonline

If 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.
Tormis 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.
Initially 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 choral music.
This 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 their basis.
What 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.
The 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.
Tormisís 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.
Often 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.
There 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.
Tormisís 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 Tormisís art.
I 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.
Perhaps 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 other backgrounds.
Having 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 speakers.
The 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.
Robert Hugill


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