Thematic series

Estonia in Focus weekend: Cyrillus Kreek – Psalms 121, 137, 141

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Estonia’s highly imaginative approach to choral music is not in any way a recent development. The country’s most dominant figure of the earlier twentieth century is Cyrillus Kreek (1889–1962), who in addition to being a composer was also a choral conductor and a collector of both Estonian and Swedish folk music. Not only did he make countless arrangements of these songs and hymns throughout his life, but they permeated Kreek’s own choral compositions which, while they display the superficially aloof demeanour typical of hymnody, retain an intense, personal immediacy that makes them powerfully poignant. Kreek’s oeuvre has been undergoing something of a renaissance in recent decades. His music was essentially outlawed after World War II for reasons of politics and ideology, but since the late 1980s, coinciding with Kreek’s centenary and, shortly after, the re-establishment of Estonian independence, Kreek has been increasingly celebrated as a composer of surprising ingenuity as well as, from a religious perspective, ecumenicity, drawing on a variety of forms of Christianity, from both East and West.

Three of Kreek’s Taaveti laulud – settings of verses from the Biblical Psalms of David – were featured at this year’s Estonian Music Days, and they demonstrate something of the quietly adventurous nature of Kreek’s music. His treatment of Psalm 121, composed in 1923, is one of simple contrasts, juxtaposing low, lugubrious references to lifting one’s eyes to the hills (as though afflicted with tiredness, only achieved with effort) with a lighter middle section reflecting on the nature of God, introducing richer harmonies, filled with hanging sevenths. Having created a warmer soundworld, Kreek takes the music back down into the depths from whence they came.

His take on Psalm 137, which dates from 1944, is more substantial. One of the most painful of the Psalms (lamenting the Israelites languishing in the wake of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem), Kreek’s setting is very much more Orthodox in nature, using male voices only, homophonic and following a chant-like procession throughout. The air of melancholy is kept understated at first, suddenly plunged into tonally-conflicted plangency at the prospect of being forced to sing “one of the songs of Zion”. But what makes the piece yet more emotionally broken is its other Orthodox trapping, inserting ‘Hallelujah’ at the end of each phrase. The effect in such a context as this – in terms of both words and music – is highly dramatic, bespeaking an inspiring determination to praise even in the midst of profound suffering. It brings to mind the line from W. H. Auden’s ‘Atlantis’, “Stagger onward rejoicing”, and injects into Kreek’s mournful music an extra layer of poignancy, particularly as these Hallelujahs themselves become harmonically contorted, at the end setting up a drone that underpins the final line (with a beautifully extended final Hallelujah). This is music at its most transparently heartbroken, where all that remains is hope. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes – To My End and to Its End… (World Première)

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A few months back, i reported on the goings-on at the Estonian Music Days, the second year running that i’d attended the festival. During this time, i’ve become increasingly interested in the country’s new musical endeavours, which for various reasons – both our fault and theirs – remain almost entirely unknown and unheard here in the UK (in one of my articles i outline some reasons why). i’m therefore going to address that by devoting a couple of long weekends to focusing on some of the more interesting music i’ve encountered from Estonia recently. It’s fitting to feature the first weekend now, as today is Võidupüha, ‘Victory Day’, when Estonians celebrate a military victory against the German forces in 1919 (the Battle of Võnnu), part of the Estonian War of Independence that continued until 1920. The memories and scars of Estonia’s back-and-forth with independence throughout the twentieth century have played and continue to play a major part in its cultural life and identity, a fact that will probably emerge in some of my forthcoming discussions about their music. For this weekend i’m focusing on the type of music for which Estonia should perhaps be most loudly celebrated: choral music.

By far the most outstanding new choral work that i’ve heard in recent times – both from Estonia and, i suspect, anywhere else – is Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes‘ To My End and to Its End…, which was premièred in Tallinn back in April. For her text, Kozlova-Johannes has turned to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, setting most of his poem from which the work takes its title (the entire poem can be read here). The poem speaks of a difficult and dangerous journey Darwish and his father made across the Lebanon-Palestine border (he and his family had been forced to flee to Lebanon during the 1948 Palestinian war), made under cover of darkness and with death an omnipresent possibility. Kozlova-Johannes has removed the few lines that mention geographical specifics, enabling the text to speak more generally about the threat posed by nearby borders. This is particularly apt from the perspective of Estonia, who only wrenched back their independence from neighbouring Russia in 1991, and where a palpable sense of disquiet – exacerbated by the sabre-rattling reign of Vladimir Putin – persists today. Furthermore, the fact that Kozlova-Johannes is herself Russian-born – she settled in Estonia in the mid-1990s – adds an extra layer of potency to the subtext. Read more

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Javier Álvarez – Overture

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Today marks the start of Lent, and for this year’s Lent Series i’m turning to the world of the small: miniatures. i’ve written in the past with no little enthusiasm about ‘epic’ compositions, but there’s something equally remarkable about a piece of music that’s able to convey something cogent in a seriously limited amount of time. i haven’t set myself a strict time-limit for the pieces featured in the series, though i suspect nothing longer than around three or four minutes. Read more

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Richard Barrett – Opening of the Mouth (UK Première)

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To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.
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John Woolrich – In the Mirrors of Asleep

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A recurring aspect in most of the death-related pieces i’ve recently explored is ambiguity, and that’s even more the case in John Woolrich‘s short work for five players, In the Mirrors of Asleep, composed in 2007. i hope Woolrich won’t take it amiss when i say that what i find most telling is the music’s inconsistent sense of direction and diffuse emotional sensibility. In this context, those are attributes that transcend their inherent uncertainty and speak just as clearly (if not more so) than via direct statement. In essence, the ensemble—comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano—betrays a thoroughly mixed psychological habitat. There’s radiance to be found, at the start, and at the fringes of various subsequent materials, particularly the music’s tendency (one of several) to express itself through slow melodic movement. These passages allude more than they emote, but that’s mainly because they aren’t afforded the opportunity to fully expound (or wallow in) their heavyweight sentiments. Woolrich breaks them off, often with spritely episodes of light, staccato counterpoint that fall into concentric patterns like multiple ticking clocks. Read more

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David Sawer – Flesh and Blood (World Première)

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For Remembrance Day, i’ve chosen a new work from David Sawer that engages with death and loss in a poignant but surprisingly passionate way. Flesh and Blood is a 25-minute dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, setting a text by playwright Howard Barker. Although not staged, the soloists do wear costumes and assume the roles of a soldier and his mother, the two of them exploring aspects of memory and resignation in the face of the Soldier’s imminent, permanent, separation and loss. That’s one way of looking at it, although the nature of the situation is nicely enigmatic; parts of the piece could just as well be taking place in absentia, within the Mother’s imagination, either in the wake of the news no parent wants to hear or with understandable dread at its fatalistic inevitability. Read more

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Hector Berlioz – Grande messe des morts

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Today’s work in my ongoing series on the subject of death is not contemporary, not in the least, but is one which nonetheless still sounds as vital and as daring as it did when it was premièred 177 years ago. The Grande messe des morts was Hector Berlioz‘s epic response to a commission to write a setting of the requiem mass in commemoration of soldiers who had perished in the 1830 French Revolution. Despite being only his fifth published work, the key word in its title is ‘grande’, as it utilises forces on a scale unprecedented in 1837 and almost never equalled since. Berlioz’s orchestral line-up is huge enough by itself, including 8 bassoons, 12 horns, 16 timpani, 10 cymbals, 4 tamtams, and a string section of 108, but this is expanded further with four separate off-stage brass brands (38 extra players) distributed around the performance space; the addition of a choir numbering at least 200 makes for an assembly of performers rather mind-boggling to imagine. And imagine is what most people have to do with this piece; i was fortunate to experience a performance in The Hague many years ago, but for obvious reasons the Grande messe des morts for the most part remains an under-performed curiosity, famous more for its gargantuan size than for the music itself. Read more

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