Reviewing Estonian composer Veljo Tormis's ECM debut "Forgotten Peoples" America's Fanfare spoke of "hypnotic music that transforms its folk sources without either exploiting them or destroying their character - attaining in the process a breathtaking balance between the composer as individual creator and the traditional community that nourished his art." At least as mesmeric as its predecessor, "Litany To Thunder" often surpasses it in sheer power. There is little in contemporary choral music to compare with the full-throated sound of the Estonian Chamber Choir on "Curse Upon Iron", their fierce declamations underpinned by the insistent hammering of a shaman's drum. And yet, at the other end of the dynamic spectrum, the young sopranos Eva Härma and Kadri Ratt sing as prettily and beguilingly as two birds on a branch, to the accompaniment of Marritt Gerretz-Traksmann's piano on "How can I Recognise My Home" and "The Lost Geese". The range of this collection is exceptionally broad, broader in fact than even the rubric "contemporary music" suggests, for Tormis's music is simultaneously ancient and modern. Accordingly, the melodic style varies from simple incantation to highly developed lines, and the songs - written over a 30 year period from 1966 to 1995 - are also texturally diverse.
"I do not use folk song," Tormis has said. "It is folk music that uses me. To me, folk music is not a means of self-expression; on the contrary, I feel the need to express the essence of folk music, its spirit, meaning and form."
The music on the present album is framed by two runo-songs. Tormis explains: "Runo-songs link modern Estonians to the ancient pre-Christian shamanistic culture practised by the Baltic Finnic peoples around the Gulf of Finland." Runo-song melodies are "repetitive short recitatives, performed as a call and response." "Kust tunnu kodu" and "Kaks eesti runolaudu", collectively known as "Two Estonian Runo-Songs" (1973-4), feature original runo melodies. On the other hand, "Songs of the Ancient Sea" (1979) finds Tormis composing a sequence of runo-songs in a modern idiom. But implications of a shamanistic, mediumistic force remain.
The shamanic impulse is foregrounded in "Curse Upon Iron" (1972): "The idea of the composition derives from shamanism: in order acquire power over a material or immaterial thing, one communicates knowledge to the object. Thus the describing and explaining of the birth of iron to iron itself forms a part of the shamanic process. The magical rite is performed to restrain the evil hiding inside iron." The composition "Litany To Thunder" employs lyrics by contemporary poet Ain Kaalep which draw from the "Prayer To Thunder" performed in the 17th century by a South Estonian peasant known locally as "The Hunder Priest": "His appeal to natural forces and the sacrifice of an ox, result in a fresh rainfall on both the agonizingly dry soil cracking up in the drought and the failing crops."
"Singing Aboard Ship" is an Ingrian-Finnish ballad - and also in a sense a historical "protest song" - adapted by Tormis. It tells of young Finnish men press-ganged into the Russian army and navy and of women left weeping on the shore. Tormis: "The original melody of the song is completely retained in the altos...My contribution is the sound environment, an empotional commentary and dramatic dynamics."
Under Tõnu Kaljuste's brilliant direction, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir explore the elemental character of the music: it often seems as much a force of nature as the storms, shipwrecks, and skies full of geese that crowd the song-texts.
Veljo Tormis was born in Talinn in 1930. After studying organ and choral conducting he turned to composition in 1950. He graduated from the Moscow State Conservatory where he studied with V. Shebalin. An expert on Estonian folk music, he has drawn on ancient peasant song in his choral music. One of his best known works is "Eesti kalendrilaulud" (1967), a cycle of 29 runic calendar songs detailing the peasant's work in the course of a year. "Forgotten Peoples", his ECM debut, was an imaginative reconstruction of "The ancient songs of my Balto-Finnic kinsfolk". Compositions by Veljo Tormis also appear on New Series recordings by the Hilliard Ensemble ("A Hilliard Song Book" and "Mnemosyne", the latter with Jan Garbarek).
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir was founded in 1981 by its artistic director and principal conductor Tõnu Kaljuste. It was first formed as the chamber choir Ellerhein, established in 1966 by Kaljuste's father. In 1971, Tõnu Kaljuste became the director of Ellerhein; under his leadership it soon acquired a reputation for adventurous programming, such as singing Dufay alongside Swedish modernist Folke Rabe, a move considered radical in the Soviet Union of the early 1970s. With the change of name in 1981, the choir became fully professional. It has since become a very valuable resource for Estonian composers, and if best known for the association with Arvo Pärt (documented on such recordings as "Kanon Pokajanen", "Litany" and "Te Deum"), it has also championed the work of Veljo Tormis, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Jaan Rääts, Lepo Sumera, Heino Eller and others. For Kaljuste the choir's outstanding characteristic is its ability to go beyond the notes, as much a "spiritual" as a musical imperative: " It's difficult to talk about, but that's where the music starts for me. It's our style, and I think it's an Estonian style. Our culture has influences from the East and from the West. Estonia is a meeting point for different cultures - Finno-Ugric, Scandinavian, Russian and Baltic. This colours the way we perform."
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir celebrate the release of "Litany to Thunder" with a special concert in Tormis's hometown of Talinn on September 19, as part of the Vox Est festival.
Further ECM New Series recordings of Estonian music with Kaljuste and the choir are currently in preparation.
CD package includes 4-language booklet with liner notes by the composer, plus full song texts in Estonian and English and photography by Tõnu Tormis.