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Tõnu KÕRVITS (b. 1969)
You Are Light and Morning (Sei la luce e il mattino) (2019)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Risto Joost
rec. 18-21 June 2019, House of the Blackheads Hall, Tallinn, Estonia
ONDINE ODE1363-2 [62:05]

Whereas the name of Arvo Pärt tends to dominate consideration of modern Estonian music, the fact is that a rich and diverse variety of composers, both younger and older, needs to be taken into account. Readers will, I hope, forgive me if I take the opportunity to recommend a personal enthusiasm. Lepo Sumera, who died cruelly young in 2000, produced works of great beauty and quirky inspiration. Many other names might profitably be added to the list. Here, in Tõnu Kõrvits, we have a representative of a younger wave of composers from that extraordinarily musical land.

Sei la luce e il mattino is a choral work with string orchestra accompaniment composed of settings of words by the Italian writer, Cesare Pavese (1908-1950). His name was new to me, and a little exploration has been worthwhile and satisfying. From his student days in Turin he was particularly interested in the English language, and wrote a thesis on Walt Whitman. He was an active participant in anti-fascist politics, and spent a short time in detention for minor political crimes. His output includes novels and short stories as well as poetry, plus an important series of American and English works translated into Italian.

Natalia Ginzburg, describing Pavese, evoked ‘the voluptuous heedless melancholy of a boy who has still not come down to earth’. He was solitary, highly sensitive, and subject to profound disappointment and disillusion with politics. A love affair with the American actress Constance Dowling ended badly, and that, combined with his already fragile psychological state, led to his death by his own hand at the age of only 41.

Kristel Pappel’s booklet note tells us that the themes that preoccupied Pavese and which are explored in the present work include ‘the land, wind, death, life, love, river, water, sea, time’. That is a pretty comprehensive list, but studying the texts as they appear in the booklet, many of them read like love poems, albeit poems about love that is reflected in nature and touched by the passage of time. ‘To C. From C.’, however, is an unambiguous declaration, written in English and addressed directly to Dowling. It is most touchingly set to music as the second song.

The musical language employed is largely tonal, the overall mood melancholy but not completely without hope, a direct response to the words. The final song, for instance, is a setting of ‘In The Morning You Always Come Back’, a poem about dawn and renewal where we find the words ‘night is finished’, ‘You are light and morning’, and, the phrase Kõrvits chooses to close the work, ‘you are life’. Within this overall mood there is a fair amount of diversity and contrast. Nothing in the chosen texts demands very fast music, but there is sufficient variety of pace to hold the listener’s attention. The work is skilfully constructed. There is even a short blues, to English words once again, superbly sung by a solo mezzo-soprano, Marianne Pärna, over a pizzicato accompaniment. I found this song strangely affecting. Pizzicato strings also accompany the fourth song, ‘La casa’ (‘The house’), for women’s voices only. The sixth song, ‘Death Will Come and Will Have Your Eyes’, is sung over the dogged tread of a passacaglia, with choral and orchestral writing of remarkable richness at the words ‘O cara speranza’ (‘O precious hope’). The final song, a satisfying summing up or synthesis of what has gone before, features a similar moment of voluptuous splendour at the words ‘Il tuo passo e il tuo fiato’ (‘Your step and your breath’), leaving room for a rekindling of hope. The composer decides, however, to close the work on an unresolved dissonance.

The booklet is well presented, the excellent essay supplemented by biographical information about the performers and the sung texts in the original Italian alongside their English translations. The listener is enveloped by the recorded sound, sumptuous yet clear, the strings and the choir perfectly balanced, equal, as they should be. A solo cello, superbly played by Leho Karin, dominates the fifth song. It is placed very forwardly in the aural picture, to the point that it must reflect the wishes of the conductor, the composer, or both. The playing of the string group is glorious, deeply expressive and richly sonorous when required. Anyone familiar with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir will know what to expect from that magnificent group; they will not be disappointed. Words are clear, helped by Kõrvits’s skilful deployment of voices, intonation is impeccable and the quality of the sound itself is simply ravishing. The team, under the dedicated guidance of Risto Joost, delivers the finest possible outing for a work that will repay repeated listening, a moving and significant addition to the choral repertoire.

William Hedley
Previous review: Hubert Culot

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