Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir,
and translations. Harmonia Mundi HMU807452
most of the Western world, Estonian music starts and ends with Arvo Pärt (b.
1935), the avatar of “sacred minimalism,” whose recordings sell quite
well, at least by the standards of classical music. But the startling,
inspiring music of Toivo Tulev (b. 1958), who represents the middle generation
of Estonian composers, offers a contrasting view of his country’s contemporary-music
scene. Tulev’s music has the soothing, chant-like quality and mystical
dimension of other medieval-influenced contemporary music (such as Pärt’s), but
because Tulev freely avails himself of the full spectrum of modernist musical
language, he creates an impact that is stimulating rather than merely
trance-like. Many passages are unearthly in a slightly unsettling, cataclysmic
manner, reminiscent of Ligeti, Messiaen or Kaija Saariaho. With Pärt, there are
times when you think you might be listening to actual medieval music; by
contrast, there’s never any doubt that Tulev is a contemporary composer.
eight-movement cycle Songs, for chorus and orchestra, draws its texts from the
Biblical Song of Songs, as well as from two poems by
Spanish and in English translation. Imaginatively scored for an orchestra that
includes two duduks (an oboe-like Armenian instrument), two synthesizers and
organ, along with multiple woodwinds and strings, the piece begins with a soothing,
sustained instrumental melody ascending in the bass. Twenty seconds in,
however, there is a startling cascade of sound — synthesizer, percussion, and
woodwinds — effectively serving notice that we should be ready for anything. I
was hooked from that point on.
to form, Tulev seemed to feel no particular constraints of any sort — whether
of tradition, tonality, accessibility or form — in composing Rejoice, Rejoice,
Rejoice! for Queen Elizabeth II, in honor of her visit to
2006. It is both worshipful and uncompromising, with plenty of dense cluster
chords. This piece and Jusquez au Printemps are difficult a cappella works, and
these successful performances are a triumph for the Estonian Philharmonic
Chamber Choir under the leadership of veteran conductor Paul Hillier, whose
expertise in both early and contemporary music makes him especially well-suited
to this repertoire.
Alas, this Tormenting is a mostly instrumental work for percussion trio, which
features a live soprano soloist (the agile and pure-voiced Kädy Plaas) plus a
prerecorded, distant-sounding vocal quartet. The piece is spare and ruminative
but ethereal and haunting when the voices come in about halfway through.
Herr ist Mein Getreuer Hirt, two versions of which are included here, shows
that Tulev can write something simple, tonal and direct but distinctive
nonetheless. The fine British countertenor Robin Blaze is excellent in this
Baroque-style setting, but he seems equally comfortable with the more difficult
melodic material of the Songs. It’s good to hear music that has a strong
spiritual content but challenges the ear and pushes the stylistic envelope.
Tulev is a composer with something important to say, and I look forward to
hearing more of it.