As in most countries, Estonian contemporary music has its share of conservatives (more) and radicals (fewer), but one composer in particular tends to flit between the two. At first listen, many would probably place Tõnu Kõrvits‘ music firmly in the conservative camp. He is, without a doubt, the country’s most ‘romantic’ composer, leaning hard towards consonance and accessibility. We could characterise this sensibility as one that looks back, and this finds a parallel in the intense emotional thrust of a great deal of his work. Super-charged with emotion – practically drenched in it at times – love and yearning, awe and amazement for both people and nature are recurring themes in his output. Yet Kõrvits’ music is consistently enigmatic; this sensibility is matched by another that looks, depending on your perspective, either forward or askew. What at first seems familiar, in terms of its musical language, is soon revealed to be not at all as it seems, tilted on one side, or even rocking queasily back and forth. There are times when it makes me think of the work of Ingmar Bergman, where seemingly conventional atmospheres and exquisite images become the makings of something altogether more disquieted and troubling.
This mix of sensibilities is a recurring feature on the latest album of Kõrvits’ work, You Are Light and Morning, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir with the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Risto Joost. The piece is an hour-long song cycle setting texts by the Italian poet and novelist Cesare Pavese. These texts, in both Italian and English, are an ideal match for the looking back / forward / askew nature of Kõrvits’ music. Pavese’s words convey a complex amalgam of passion and aloofness, adoration and fatalism, high romanticism and grounded observation, all the while pulling back and forth between these seemingly irreconcilable poles of attitude and outlook. An example of this almost paradoxical close mingling of love and death (more echoes of Bergman), warmth and cold, past and present, concludes the opening part of the work, ‘You Are Like a Land’:
There’s a wind that reaches you.
Dry and long-dead things
encumber you and leave on the wind.
Ancient words and limbs.
You shiver in the summer.
Though his music bears no meaningful resemblance to impressionism, i’ve come to realise that Tõnu Kõrvits has a special gift for capturing the same kind of semi-swooning balmy haze that so often permeates Debussy’s music. It’s a consequence, i think, of this askew nature of his writing, the way that his harmonic language is sufficiently slanted that it sounds heady, even somewhat intoxicated, though due to weight of emotion rather than artificial stimulants. Indeed, far from being impressionistic, there’s almost something expressionistic about the way these ostensibly warm, even ‘safe’, songs are pulled out of shape so relentlessly and so strangely by their underlying passion and poignancy. The result, as so often in Kõrvits’ work, is a complete melding of comfort and discomfort that is utterly fascinating; not a lot of music makes you feel like you want to cry tears of joy and sadness at the same time.
Estonian music hardly needs to be performed by Estonian musicians, but the sense of affinity in this recording is palpable, quite apart from the fact the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir isn’t simply one of the best choirs in the country, but in the world. The way the singers move in this murky realm of up and down is deeply powerful. They invite us into soft meditative episodes as if we were an intimate confidante, baffle us in textures of convoluted overlapping waves, appear united yet individuated simultaneously, surreptitiously shift sideways from melody to chant to stasis to whisper. The strings don’t simply provide a sympathetic context for the voices (though they do do that) but are an essential part in how ‘haunted’ the music so often sounds. There are times when their details, seemingly clear, have somehow become totally impenetrable; elsewhere they slip-slide around, seemingly permanently restless, which only makes occasions when they slot into plodding regularity feel all the more unnerving.
“You shiver in the summer” – it’s hard not to come away from this beautiful song cycle feeling that it’s entire essence is captured in that early line. Even its seemingly optimistic denouement, closing with the words “warmth, breath – / the night is finished. / You are light and morning”, continues the haunting quality that has pervaded everything else. Ultimately, what you take away from You Are Light and Morning perhaps depends more than it usually does on what you bring to it – where you’re at, as it were – and whether its dark elements resonate with more or less weight and plausibility than its light elements. It’s a remarkable kind of ’emotional chiaroscuro’, one that feels all too true to the vicissitudes of life, love and nature.
Released by Ondine, You Are Light and Morning is available on CD and download.