Estonian Music Days 2023 (Part 1)

by 5:4

In previous accounts of my annual pilgrimage to Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, i’ve tended to remark on the festival’s insistence on a theme, usually in regard to how innocuous or irrelevant it seemed in relation to the actual concerts. This year, the Tallinn portion of the festival took as its theme the single word “soul” (the concluding few days in Tartu focused on an adjacent concept, “spirit”). My scepticism with such themes is largely due to the simple fact that i’m a lot more interested in hearing what a composer has to say than a festival artistic director. However, we live in troubling times (but then, when do we not?), so i couldn’t help feeling that there was perhaps some merit in encouraging audiences to actively reflect on what they were listening to, in terms of its impact upon their (for want of a better word) souls, while at the same time considering how all of us – composers, performers, listeners – meet as a collection of souls when we come together in the communal act of music-making.

Does the fact that our world is in a turbulent, potentially calamitous state mean that music must now always ‘mean’ something, or evoke something tangible? Is it possible for music to be just music, and sound to be just sound – abstract things that mean whatever we want them to mean, including nothing at all? This question was provoked on various occasions during this year’s Estonian Music Days, particularly in light of how many composers had embraced abstraction in their music.

Jonas Tarm’s Line, premièred by the M4GNET Quartet, was one such example, living up to its name by being structured around that most basic of ideas, a descending scale. Though it developed from gentle, overlapping lines into fairly typical, somewhat filmic fare (at times bringing to mind Tóti Guðnason’s score for Lamb), it redeemed itself with a nicely odd, halting, muted episode at its close, and in any case it was easily the most interesting piece in a concert that was surprisingly regressive. Since my first visit to Estonia in 2016, i’ve had the recurring impression of a musical culture existing in something of a bubble, not entirely cut off but certainly distanced from western European developments of the twentieth century. In the last few years i’ve come to appreciate more deeply the reality of that perception, which is in part a symptom of the country’s cultural stifling due to the chokehold of occupation.

M4GNET Quartet: Estonian Academy of Sciences, Tallinn, 29 April 2023 (photo: Rene Jakobson)

But regardless of the reasons, it was a genuinely bizarre experience to hear the the concert open and close with the Four Pieces by one of Estonia’s most significant last generation composers, Heino Eller, a work dating from 1954 but which in terms of its musical language could almost have been written in the late 1800s. Demonstrating a similar stylistic temporal lag was Kristo KlausMaskott traavis [The mascot cantered], a pointless bit of post-romantic noodling inspired by the equally pointless notion that there might be a “theory of good music” (ironic, in the circumstances), and even Rosa mystica by the always interesting Lauri Jõeleht found itself descending from a promising opening of strange harmonic configurations into post-romantic counterpoint. Mariliis Valkonen‘s Journey to Ease fell somewhere in between convention and imagination, progressing according to energy levels that kept recharging and petering out, though doing this so often and so generically that it was hard to perceive either the sense of a longer-term “journey” or an eventual “ease”.

Jõeleht’s music was heard to much better effect in a portrait concert to launch his new CD, tapping into the contrapuntal abstraction of Spanish Renaissance music, alternating between old and new. Jõeleht’s own performance of Alonso Mudarra’s guitar piece ‘Fantasia del IV tono’ (composed in 1546) was beautifully shaped, making the House of the Blackheads feel very small and intimate. This was seamlessly followed by Jõeleht’s Chant Polyphonique, performed by harpsichordist Ene Nael. Characterised by rising phrases and patterns, it had the same tactile quality as Mudarra’s music, as if the material were being physically handled and examined from various angles. Switching to muted stops partway through, the work was like an essay in filigree.

Ene Nael, Lauri Jõeleht: House of the Black Heads, Tallinn, 27 April 2023 (photo: Rene Jakobson)

Even more striking was violist Garth Knox’s closing performance of Chant Harmonique, a piece inspired by Luys de Narváez’s 1958 ‘Canción del Emperador’, where a low fundamental tone felt like the source from which the elaborate ideas going on above all sprang. These were surprisingly vivid, bringing to mind eddies of smoke, and sparks of light suggesting glow-worms flying in darkness. Intermingled with an ongoing lyrical inclination, the music ultimately fizzled out into high harmonics and arpeggios, now like piercing motes of light in a void.

Margo Kõlar also explored a kind of abstract glitter in Patterns of Light, a new work for a group playing the Torupill, traditional Estonian bagpipes, premièred in Tallinn’s austere Swedish Church. Kõlar is one of the most stylistically-varied composers i’ve encountered in Estonia, happy to explore conventional and radical ideas with complete freedom. Patterns of Light encompassed both, with fast, rhythmically dancing sequences clearly rooted in the instrument’s folk origins, at their most interesting when they became irregular, with decorative motifs flying outwards. But the work’s most engrossing music was the total opposite: rich, blazing clusters and oblique harmonic shifts, opening out into a beautiful ambient environment where our field of hearing was entirely filled with gently overlapping phrases and colours.

Mari Meentalo, Katariin Raska, Kaisa Kuslapuu, Ulvi Võsa, Kerli Kislõi, Karolin Vetevoog, Margo Kõlar: Swedish St. Michael’s Church, Tallinn, 1 May 2023 (photo: Rene Jakobson)

Some of these performances are available to stream (for free) via Klassikaraadio; the Bagpipe orchestra concert can also be video streamed (also for free) via the festival’s EMP TV service. Lauri Jõeleht’s new CD Tribute to the Golden Age is available from the Estonian Music Information Centre. Links below:

M4GNET Quartet: audio
Bagpipe Orchestra: audio / video
Lauri Jõeleht – Tribute to the Golden Age

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