This attractive new release from Chandos is dedicated to orchestral music written by Artur Kapp (1878-1952), his son Eugen (1908-1996) and his nephew Villem (1913-1964). These three musicians were largely responsible for founding and maintaining the so-called 'Estonian orchestral tradition' during a time of great volatility in their country's history. Admittedly, this tradition is deeply indebted to composers from across Estonia's eastern border (with occasional references to Scandinavia) and trails behind its neighbours from a temporal stylistic standpoint. Nevertheless, the works presented here are enjoyable and rewarding, and deserve to be heard outside their land of origin. And who better to make a case for the oeuvre of this national compositional lineage than the head of the same country's own conducting dynasty – Neeme Järvi.
Though the senior Kapp had a long and productive career, writing five symphonies, five concertos and an oratorio based on the Biblical story of Job (amongst other works), the work chosen here is his first for orchestral forces. Written in 1899 as an examination piece at the St Petersburg Conservatory, the dramatic overture Don Carlos is brimming with attractive melodies and inventive instrumentation. Given the piece's compositional proficiency, with its dexterous treatment of thematic material in relation to Schiller's tale, it surprises me that Järvi has not previously committed it to disc. He directs a sparkling account at the helm of the superlative BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, shaping the composer's organised tumult with the utmost care.
Eugen Kapp studied with his father Artur at the Tallinn Conservatory and went on to become the institute's Rector from 1952 to 1964. His ballet Kalevipoeg (1947) was based on Estonia's eponymous national epic poem (which has no fewer than 19,032 verses), penned by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald nearly a century earlier. Thankfully, the orchestral suite presented here is not quite as daunting as its source material, divided into six short, enchanting movements.
These pieces are not unlike those Tchaikovsky composed in an effort to bring The Nutcracker to concert audiences. However, beyond the sweeping melodies and expert orchestrations, Kapp's work does manage to set itself apart. There is a greater sense of folk music in the Kalevipoeg Suite, particularly in 'Forging of the Swords' (a rambunctious gallop which should unquestionably be used as the theme for a TV western) and, unsurprisingly, in the appropriately named 'Folk Dance' (which relies staunchly upon an irregular 3-2-3 quaver beat). There is also a palpable tinge of twentieth-century modernity, both in harmony (such as the juicy introduction to 'Kalevipoeg's Dance with the Maiden of the Lake') and in texture (the whirling woodwind semiquavers in 'Dance of the Wind' are reminiscent of Stravinsky's Firebird). Järvi and the BBC Philharmonic capture the essence of these mouth-watering miniatures, with vivacious woodwind solos and a remarkable intensity from the strings.
Villem Kapp – who also received tutelage from Artur at the Tallinn Conservatory – has written the most 'out-of-date' work on this disc. His Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1955) appeared about seven decades after the era in which it belongs. It is, nevertheless, a neat, tautly constructed composition. The opening movement is based around a simple yet highly functional motif somewhat akin to first four notes of Shostakovich's 'Cello Concerto No. 1. The second subject, though not the most memorable, threatens to launch itself wholeheartedly into 'I Vow to Thee My Country' before opting to take an alternative path. Following a fairly conventional working-out of material Kapp presents an inspired and unforeseen conclusion which is ably executed by conductor and orchestra.
The almost-Brahmsian Adagio espressivo is notable for its sumptuously unpredictable harmonic inflections. The BBC Philharmonic is tender in its performance, though they might have shown greater expressivity in Kapp's luscious countermelodies (particularly in the strings during the introduction). The ensuing Allegro is a waltz in which both mischief and magnificence abound. Its carefree nature allows us a few minutes of idyll before the Finale brings us full circle by reintroducing the overwhelming tension of the first movement. The four-note motif from the first movement is immediately thrust upon us, followed by a rekindling of the tragedy initially experienced during the symphony's introduction. A thrilling allegro passage follows, after which the movement reaches its peak with a radiantly majestic restatement of the second subject's principal theme. Järvi and his orchestra navigate these junctures with flair and panache, bringing the work to a triumphant close.
Accompanied by concise yet informative booklet notes, and aided by exceptional recorded sound, these performances are a resounding success, and fully deserve to garner the Kapp family greater recognition away from their homeland.