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Tõnu KÕRVITS (b. 1969)
Azure (2016/17) [2:46]
Hymns to the Nordic Lights (2011) [13:11]
Silent Songs (2015) [14:58]
Leaving Capri (2018) [4:35]
Tears Fantasy (2011) [7:37]
Elegies of Thule (2007) [13:56]
Meelis Vind (bass clarinet, Silent Songs)
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Risto Joost
rec. 2015-19, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn.
ONDINE ODE1349-2 [57:42]

Tõnu Kõrvits’ music has always impressed, and with recordings such as Moorland Elegies, also on the Ondine label (review) and so I made a bee-line for this new selection of orchestral works.

Azure was originally written as a vocalise for male voices, and is a reflective study on two-chord gestures in which the second blends into the first, the progressions creating an almost prayerful whole. This is a fine ‘warm-up’ that takes us straight into Hymns to the Nordic Lights, a work in five movements in which the Northern Lights phenomenon is described and expressed in music. This can manifest itself in drama, as occurs with the opening, reproducing that breathtaking moment when you experience this glorious sight for the first time. Shimmering colours, overtone effects and illusions and an ever-restless sense of motion runs throughout the work, the sensation of awesome beauty never far away but sometimes with an undercurrent of threat or danger. Sibelius has to be mentioned as a shadowy influence, gazing benignly on the vast skyscapes evoked in Kõrvits’ fascinating score, and the booklet note Kristel Poppel mentions one moment as being “like the summit of a Scriabin-like ecstasy”. In the end you can just revel in this piece, allowing your imagination to take flight amongst those curtains of light that inspire and perhaps at times oppress, enjoying this powerful work for what it is even if your ears are occasionally prickled by elusive references.

Silent Songs for bass clarinet and orchestra was written for the soloist in this recording, Meelis Vind. We are guided towards the work’s affinity for Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, its parallels to be found in the improvisatory character of the solo part. An Estonian/Swedish religious folk tune is also found in the second of three movements, the titles of which are Flower, Sacred River and Farewell Farewell respectively. There is indeed a rhetorical quality to the solo part, its lyrical character even in the second movement soon taking it beyond that recognisable tune into something that grows organically around an introverted but intriguingly shaded and harmonically rich orchestral backing. As might be expected from the title, the final movement sails closest to sentimentality in its gentle string surges and minor-key feel. There are orchestral moments that recall the Gil Evans sound of some of Miles Davis’ other albums, but the ‘jazz’ element is more that of a flavour or aroma than a core aspect of the work.

Leaving Capri is, and I quote from the booklet note, “a barcarolle with an elegiac melody, ‘a homage to Konrad Mägi’ as the composer has noted in the score.” Mägi is an important Estonian painter from the beginning of the 20th century who lived for a time in Capri in the early 1920s, bringing back its vibrant colours in his work but never able to return before his death at the age of 47. This piece is therefore a kind of lament, but with poignant glimpses of sunlight on water and vibrant Mediterranean air, Kõrvits’ feel for romance without lapsing into easy solutions resulting in a fine musical portrait of an emotional time and place. Tears Fantasy is dedicated to the conductor for this recording, Risto Joost, with whom the composer has collaborated frequently. This piece takes its concept from John Dowland’s Flow My Tears, though while we are encouraged to find an ‘imitation of lute sounds’ I doubt I would have heard these, though there are moments that have that English Renaissance sound in mind. The emotive effects are however thoroughly orchestrated, with the teardrops illustrated in sighing motifs and descending phrases.

The final work, Elegies of Thule, is in fact the earliest from this collection. In three movements, there are references to the Moorland Elegies in the first movement, and as with Silent Songs there is a recognisable melody used in the second movement, in this case a Seto folk tune called Kellä or ‘bells’. The final movement takes up a religious folk song I Look Up to the Hill, a tune that has its origins on the island of Saaremaa, referred to here as “the hypothetical ‘real’ land of Thule.” This is a substantial and satisfying piece for strings, with atmosphere and fascinating evocations of folk instruments, and delivering a movingly roaming final movement to conclude the programme.

Performed and recorded to impeccable high standards, this is the kind of release that can restore your faith in the power of contemporary music. Tõnu Kõrvits’ voice is very much one that invites rather than repels the listener, creating gorgeous sounds to go along with imaginatively conceived and expressively grounded material. There’s plenty of depth and poetic emotion to get your teeth into, so sharpen your senses and dive in.

Dominy Clements

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