Estonia in Focus weekend: New Estonian Choral Music, Tõnu Kõrvits – Moorland Elegies, Galina Grigorjeva – Nature Morte

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To bring this first Estonia in Focus weekend to a close, some excellent CDs of Estonian contemporary choral music have been released in the last few months. Together they admirably demonstrate the considerable range and richness of compositional thought typical of the country’s new music scene. For a broad but in-depth overview of this scene, there’s a superb new anthology released by the Estonian Music Information Centre, the primary and superbly supportive outlet for the country’s musical output (at present, the disc only appears to be available directly from there). It contains music by no fewer than ten composers, works all written within the last 15 years.

Folksong, whether clearly invoked or implied, is an influence in several of the pieces. Most obviously in Kristo Matson‘s Three Estonian Folk Songs, a strangely-structured work – the middle ‘song’ is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that it hardly counts – and perhaps a little too simplistic for its own good, but with some pretty moments, particularly in the opening song. Piret Rips-Laul‘s Paradisi Gloria is similarly simple, and regarding the album as a whole feels like the odd one out, more redolent of the sugary choral styles so prevalent in the US, tapping into a harmonic world not unlike Morten Lauridsen’s but without the scrunchy diatonics. Also with a folk sensibility, but greater invention and beauty, is Maria Kõrvits‘ work for female choir Haned-luiged (Geese-Swans), essentially homophonic but here and there enriched with sustained chords behind, while Mariliis Valkonen‘s Usalduse jõgi (River of Trust) widens the scope of such simplicity, combining relatively rigid underpinning (via drones) with a mixture of unified declamation and bursts of more textural music. Many of the works on this disc have love as a central theme. In Near by Evelin Seppar, setting texts by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it’s implicit rather than stated (Seppar’s partner conducts the choir for whom it was written), though the work’s strong upward movements that coalesce around the phrase “mystic shape”, and the overwhelmingly passionate outpouring heard later, answered by a soft, heartfelt conclusion, make the subtext abundantly clear. Born in 1958, Toivo Tulev is the elder statesman here, and not simply in terms of age: Tulev has acted in the role of composition teacher for four of the other featured composers. Though the two movements from his 2007 vocal cycle Sonnets are unfortunately marred by an imperfect recording (afflicted with a low hum), the stirring melancholy that Tulev wrings from Dante’s La vita nuova is crystal clear. First the choir laments and consoles itself as a kind of close-knit support group, before turning outwards in a more emotionally raw episode that benefits from sounding intuitive, the contrast between loud, high outbursts and sustained softer passages making this arguably the most direct music on the disc. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Galina Grigorjeva – Vespers (World Première)

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A major new choral work was premièred at this year’s Estonian Music Days in Tallinn, by one of the country’s most celebrated composers. Born in the Ukraine, Galina Grigorjeva relocated to Estonia 25 years ago and has since become essentially adopted by the country as one of its own. On 6 April, Vox Clamantis, conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve, gave the first performance of Grigorjeva’s Vespers. It’s an ambitious, 30-minute work in seven movements, each of which sets words (in English) drawn either from the Orthodox prayerbook or passages of the King James Bible. Not all of Grigorjeva’s music shows this so overtly, but the Vespers are clearly indebted to the general aesthetic (if not quite the technique) of Estonia’s most famous composer Arvo Pärt. It’s a different approach from that in some of her other choral work (about which i’ll be writing in due course), but here the music is for the most part intentionally kept emotionally remote, focusing instead on a more austere, one-step-removed mindset that taps deeply into both the soundworld and attitude of Orthodox worship. Perhaps it goes without saying that this won’t necessarily prove inviting for everyone.

Personally, both at the concert and a few months on i remain in two minds about the piece. As i noted in my original review, one of the risks taken by the most fervent religious contemporary composers – most obviously, in recent years, Pärt, John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, as well as, to an extent, James MacMillan and even, further back, Olivier Messiaen – is that the music can (inadvertently or deliberately) end up depending on the notion of a higher power in order, as i wrote before, “to ‘fill in the blanks’ and imbue the music with some of that power”. This is not true of every piece by these composers, of course, and in most of what i’ve heard of Grigorjeva’s music it certainly isn’t the case. In the Vespers, though, there are times when the music exhibits a kind of listlessness that one senses is precisely one of these places where the ‘magic’ is missing (or not, depending on your spiritual outlook). i’d cite the fifth movement as an example of this, a setting of the Nunc dimittis that’s perfectly pretty but at the same time seriously enervated, to the point that its broad assertive climax sounds terribly forced. Even more, though, is seventh movement ‘I will bless the Lord’, an extended setting of Psalm 34 that arguably pushes things too far for too long. There’s nothing wrong with a composition resembling (or indeed, for the composer, being) an act of worship, but in this movement the music seems to be leaving a very obvious spiritual ‘outline’ that – again, depending on where you’re coming from – either does or doesn’t get filled in. It’s a shame this is how the work ends. Read more

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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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Jack Sheen – Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze (World Première)

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Today being the solstice, i’m marking the first day of summer with a small seasonal work by UK composer and conductor Jack Sheen. Sheen was one of the three winners of the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers’ Competition in 2011, and his piece Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze was composed the following year. It utilises a relatively small ensemble – cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass, led by a solo alto flute – to highly impressionistic ends, resulting in a kind of contemporary re-imagining of the soundworld of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Sheen’s piece inhabits precisely the same kind of lush, balmy atmosphere that typifies the Debussy, and what it (understandably) lacks in post-romanticism is instead represented with an impressively heady quality that sounds as though it might just swoon at any moment. An idea accompaniment for the sweltering heatwave Britain is currently enjoying. Read more

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Christian Wolff – Spring (UK Première)

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Tomorrow is the summer solstice, which technically makes today the last day of spring. To bid farewell to the season, here’s a very interesting orchestral work titled Spring by US composer Christian Wolff. Composed in 1995, Spring was Wolff’s first orchestral piece, and in it he experimented with indeterminate elements, combining them with more conventionally notated and performed (i.e. conducted) music. Despite its title, there’s no extra-musical programme attached to the piece, and each of the four movements is unnamed. Despite its non-programmatic nature, though, Wolff is clearly engaging with existing musical materials with a view toward a kind of Ivesian mash-up as well as varying forms of obfuscation, disintegration and, perhaps, refinement. Maybe Wolff was wondering what might ‘spring’ forth from these processes of experimentation. There’s certainly more than a hint of alchemy to it all, which over the course of the four movements becomes intensified, with the results bearing a concomitantly less obvious connection to their source materials. Read more

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Þráinn Hjálmarsson – As heard across a room (World Première)

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Today is Þjóðhátíðardagurinn, Iceland’s national day, celebrating their independence from Denmark and founding as a republic in 1944. Quite apart from Iceland being one of my favourite countries, its contribution to contemporary music (as seen in my recent Nordic CD review) is a challenging and imaginative one. A very good example of this can be heard in Þráinn Hjálmarsson‘s orchestral work As heard across a room, composed in 2014. That simple, descriptive title immediately brings to mind another, Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, though while Lucier’s piece grapples with the literal effects of aural reality, Hjálmarsson is exploring them from a somewhat more figurative perspective.

Despite appearances, it would be over-simplistic to summarise the piece as being textural. This would place the emphasis and focus of one’s attention on the generalised, nebulous quality of the music. And there’s certainly a great deal of this, Hjálmarsson establishing a soundworld so indistinct – full of strange, distant rustlings; lots of activity but all of it indefinite and blurred – that it would be easy to hear it as ‘non-music’, a candid outtake in which the orchestra were absent-mindedly toying with their instruments. For a couple of minutes, it seems as though this is all that there is, creating an interesting illusion where, despite the granular, gritty nature of this soundworld, it’s sufficiently slippery that one’s ear slides straight off it. This is paradox music: like trying to make out the structure of a void. Read more

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