Veljo Tormis’s timeless compositions draw inspiration from Estonia’s ancient history, and these evocations of the past, influenced by folk musics of the Baltic region, are often mesmerizing in sheer physical power. There is nothing else in contemporary choral music that can be compared with "Curse Upon Iron", where the fierce declamations of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir are underpinned by the pounding pulse of a shaman’s drum. At such moments, Tormis’s music seems possessed, and even the quieter episodes – such as the runo-songs performed by two young sopranos to piano accompaniment – have an hypnotic insistency.
Veljo Tormis: Litany To Thunder
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste
- 2Singing Aboard Ship (for contralto and mixed choir)
- 3Curse Upon Iron (for tenor, bass, mixed choir and shaman drum)
- 4The Singer's Childhood (for soprano and female choir)
- 5Songs Of The Ancient Sea (for tenor and male choir)
- 6The Bishop And The Pagan (for countertenor, two tenors and male choir)
- 7Litany To Thunder (for tenor, bass, male choir and bass drum)
- 8The Lost Geese (for two sopranos and piano)
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.
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