Tõnu Kõrvits – Hymns to the Northern Lights

by 5:4

For those of you who prefer a little less avant in your garde, consider the latest portrait disc of music by Tõnu Kõrvits. Kõrvits occupies an interesting position within the Estonian contemporary scene. His music embodies a great deal of the conservatism that tends to typify new music from that country – a situation that is gradually changing – yet it’s also mischievous, quixotic and capricious, often turning out to be something more or other than first appearances might suggest. Additionally, he’s by far the most lyrical Estonian composer i’ve encountered (and that’s saying something), unafraid to allow his music to expand seemingly unchecked into vast, passionately romantic (with both a small and large ‘R’) reveries – though often these are coloured in such a way that they simultaneously convey an air or at least a trace of unease. The new disc of his work, Hymns to the Northern Lights, performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Risto Joost, is an excellent demonstration of all these traits.

While it’s hard not to get caught up in the intensity of Kõrvits’ music, there are times when its more traditional creative outlook is frustrating. Elegies of Thule, composed in 2007 and by far the oldest work on this disc (everything else dates from the last decade) is an exercise in incidental music-like middle-of-the-road meandering. A work for strings, it has some typically effective orchestrational touches – particularly the smeary texture that occupies the first half of final movement ‘I Look Up to the Hill’ – but engaging moments like this only make the rest of the piece feel all the more light and cloyingly filmic. Leaving Capri, another string piece, seems at first to be similarly safe but the security of its harmonic language – conveying the kind of repressed billowing passions that would suit an Austen period drama – has enough flecks of melancholia to render it mildly askew. It brings to mind his 2015 work Moorland Elegies (reviewed here) which used a similar approach to explore the poetry of Emily Brontë. More melancholic, and more engrossing, is the 7-minute Tears Fantasy, an exquisite piece that throughout manages to sound soft yet weighty. Drawing on renaissance musical models (primarily Dowland) it has the tone and focus of a passacaglia, often sounding so heavy-laden that the clarity of its construction (both horizontally and vertically) is obfuscated; we only get a clearer sense of what’s happening when Kõrvits pulls things back and reduces the forces. It’s highly effective, all the more so as it never sounds anything other than emotionally direct – to the point that when the lyricism is allowed some space it’s among the most beautiful of Kõrvits’ music that i’ve ever heard. The more vague final third appears to loses focus, though if anything it clarifies the disquiet at the heart of this powerful piece, making for a fittingly uncomfortable emotive experience.

The remainder of the disc is an unabashed luxuriating in aural opulence. The three movements of bass clarinet concerto Silent Songs have a distinct noir quality, making their waves of richness smoky and nocturnal, with hints of jazz. There’s something of the world of Takemitsu to its roaming sense of musical direction, clarinettist Meelis Vind taking a crepuscular tour through an imaginary landscape. Inhabiting an opposite sense of scale, 3-minute string work Azure feels like we’ve zoomed in on a miniature world. Created from two-chord phrases, the piece has a Pärt- or Skempton-like behavioural and harmonic simplicity, though towards its close Kõrvits gives the music a lugubrious twist that throws a grey hue over its shades of blue, a magical effect.

The title work, Hymns to the Northern Lights, dates from 2011 and in the same way as Azure is primarily concerned with the beauty of sound on its own terms, acting as a parallel for the elusive transient wonder of the aurora borealis. Though cast in five movements, it effectively plays out as a single 14-minute fantasia that contains arguably the most dramatic music on the disc. That word needs to be qualified, however; recurring words that come to mind when listening to this album are “gentle”, “mild”, “soft”, “light” – and this reflects the level of restraint heard in all of these pieces. So while this particular work is more dramatic, the drama manifests in such things as its hugely elastic, constantly flexing, approach to tempo, the way ideas are kept at a tantalising distance before being brought forward and developed, and its unexpected vast bursting displays of colour, one of which – festooned with percussive glitter – begins the piece. Subtlety and delicacy are what typify Hymns to the Northern Lights, though this means that when Kõrvits does initiate a climax, as partway through the final movement, it sounds all the more full-blooded and overwhelming. As elsewhere, though, it’s the small details that often prove most beguiling, and the sequence of descending tremulous ribbons and streaks left in the wake of this climax are arguably more impressive, beautiful to behold.

Released by Ondine, Hymns to the Northern Lights is available on CD and download.

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