Veljo Tormis is a composer who has had, until recently, relatively little recognition outside of his native Estonia, where he is lionised. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, his predominately choral and folk inspired music has gradually been finding its way into the mainstream contemporary choral repertoire. This wonderful new Hyperion release dedicated to Tormis' music with Stephen Layton and the Holst Singers should, by virtue of its fascinating resuscitation of internationally neglected works, further contribute to the composer's Western emergence.
Primarily inspired by the ancient Estonian folk song tradition 'regilaul', the cycles and songs on this disc display a refreshing candour as regards their folk origins (most of the works are direct elaborations of folk material). Elements from the Estonian folk tradition (such as asymetrical rhythms, chromatic modes, repetition and refrain, and an overt reliance on call and response textures) sit comfortably alongside details and derivations (such as polytonality, cluster chords, and refinements of line and of cadence patterns) from the Western art tradition. The composer displays deft skill and quiet innovation in his expansions upon his source material. One is left, for once, with the impression that here at last is a Communist-afflicted composer for whom the adoption of a folk idiom was happily something more than a matter of mere expedience.
The disc is made up twenty-six a cappella songs, the majority of which come from small to medium scale cycles that range from about seven to seventeen minutes in length. These cycles are each grouped around either programmatic themes, as in the Autumn landscapes, or are unified by genre type, as in for example the Four Estonian Lullabies. The exceptions are the two stand-alone pieces, Singing aboard ship and Childhood memory (all titles and texts are in the original Estonian in the performance). The works presented on this disc cover, in chronological terms, almost the whole breadth of the composer's career (he retired in the year 2000). The idiomatic and skilful performances on this release present the listener with a clear opportunity to appreciate the development and gradual maturation of a talented composer's folk-inflected voice
The author of the informative programme notes that accompany the CD suggests that it is the works that date from after the mid '60s, the point at which Tormis had finally found a convincing folk-art idiom that blended externally sourced material with his own expansions thereof, that hold most interest. Though I am inclined to agree with this assertion (witness the somewhat bland first Enno setting from 1948 for example), the Autumn landscapes from 1964 must be seen as a fascinating prelude to that maturity. The sinuous scalar melodies of the 4th landscape and the colourful harmonies and sharp division into sustained and prancing textures in the 6th, each point towards future tropes Tormis would regularly explore. The final cadence of the first Landscape is perhaps the best moment on the disc, and it is a neat illustration of the strengths of both the performers and the composer. After a short song that evokes late summer through the contrast of gentle pedal points and choppier recitation in a homophonic and modal style, the setting moves to a becalmed conclusion that manages to approach in kind the still genuflection of Palestrina. The performers, as elsewhere, respond here with sensitivity and grace. The singers create a serene resonance of buzzing tones, and the final resolution is handled with astonishing poignancy. These last two to three lines, 'will ne'er return here, this same summer', are sounded with a unique and discreet longing. The warmth of the acoustic is foregrounded here too.
As befits a composer almost entirely focused on choral composition, the expression and illustration of the words and of the poetic content is paramount. Tormis' wonderful ear for sonority and for colour (as can be heard in the Bass' evocation of 'rolling waves' in the third of the Kalev songs, or in the swashbucklingly male opening to the fifth song of the Livonian heritage set, 'Sang the father, sang the son'), plays an important role in the expression of the poetry. His nice line in humour and farce (as heard in the caprice, the colourful chromaticism, and the mock antique refinement that suggest Ligeti's Nonsense Madrigals in the Three Estonian game songs) is equally important to that end. Text and music commingle elegantly in this music. In fact it is in these moments of aesthetic playfulness and musical pictorialism that composer and performers impress most. The Holst singers respond well to the alliterative tests of the Estonian texts, clearly articulating the guttural and onomatopoeic sounds (for example bz bz bz, or ek-eo-eo) with a real narrative flair, and a sumptuous tone. Their conductor likewise strikes a fine balance between free-flowing Madrigal type performance, and the more streamlined ensemble performance required in songs like 'Waking the Birds' from Livonian Heritage, with its subtle clashes of major and minor seconds and thirds over a sustained droning bassline. The performers meet the quiet challenges of Tormis' music with flexibility and aplomb.
Tormis' is a wonderfully contrastive and unfettered type of expression. It can be entirely serious at one point, and then utterly unkempt the next. Boisterousness and tenderness are easy partners in his music, as they are in the people his music takes as its subject. It is to the performers' credit that they manage to persuasively inhabit the characters and persona of these folk tales and scenes without falling into facile affectation or artifice. In this vein, the extended piece, Childhood memory, provides a fitting conclusion to the disc. With its simple figures and its gently sentimental sensibility, Tormis faithfully inscribes into his song a series of little musical figures originally used by children in the herding of cattle. The unavoidably nostalgic bent of the proceedings here (special credit must be given to the solo soprano singers Nicola Wookey and Katy Cooper, both of whom manage to invoke the persona of a young Estonian child with unexpected force) are again handled with sensitivity and intelligence by conductor and ensemble, whose interpretative consistency and insight is by now firmly established. This is a fine, fine disc of somewhat neglected choral treasures.