Anyone who is serious about following contemporary music knows that ECM New Series has played a significant role in making the music of recent Estonian composers available to a large audience of attentive listeners. The best known of these composers is definitelyArvo Pärt, whose work has been “examined” occasionally (but not thoroughly) on this site, as has been the music of Erkki-Sven Tüür. Other composers selected by Manfred Eicher for distribution through ECM New Series are Heino Eller, Veljo Tormis (whose music has been performed in my home town of San Francisco by choral groups such as Cappella SF andVolti), and Helena Tulve.
This Friday ECM New Series will release Mirror, an album of the work of Tõnu Kõrvits. As is usually the case, this recording is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Two of the performers have their own history with ECM New Series. Tõnu Kaljuste, who conducts by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Choir, is already well known for his performances of Pärt’s scores; and cellist Anja Lechner has been recorded by ECM as a member of both the Rosamunde Quartet and the Tarkovsky Quartet and as a soloist.Mirror also features vocalist Kadri Voorand; and on one track Kõrvits accompanies Voorand on the kannel, the Estonian version of the zither.
As to the music itself, it would be fair to number Kõrvits among those composers interested in natural phenomena and in expressing that interest through music. Lechner came to know about Kõrvits when Kaljuste introduced her to his song cycle Seitsme Linnu Seitse Und(seven dreams of seven birds). Kõrvits scored this piece for cello, choir, and string ensemble; and the operative word in the title is “dreams.”
This is not the sort of “naturalist’s perspective” on avian life that one would expect in the music of Olivier Messiaen. Rather, the music draws upon texts by the Estonian poet Maarja Kangro, which is less concerned with birds than with the space they inhabit. Motifs rendered by the cello then apply the full breadth of the instrument’s sonorous possibilities to evoke the birds themselves. Kõrvits would probably admit that his evocation has nothing to do with a bird’s “conception of the world” (to borrow a phrase from Jean Piaget), let alone a bird’s dreamworld (assuming that birds even dream). Instead, one might say that Kangro’s sonorous word choices combine with Kõrvits’ instrumental setting to create a human world inhabited by a population of fantasized birds.
In a similar manner Kõrvits evokes landscapes that are closer to fantasy than to reality. The major work in this genre is Labūrindid (labyrinths), a suite for strings in seven movements, each of which creates its own vision of a path that must twist its way through an elaborately configured environment. In this case Kõrvits works as much with almost disturbingly shifting phrases as with the exploration of a diversity of sonorities.
These two large pieces alternate with several shorter works that are either songs or instrumental music with song-like rhetoric. The most striking (pun intended, as will be seen) of these is “Viimane Laev” (the last ship), which Kõrvits composed jointly with Tormis, setting a text about death by Juhan Smuul for male choir, bass drum, and strings. As many know from the music of Gustav Mahler, the bass drum can have some very spooky effects where death is concerned; and this song reveals a new generation of those effects.
Nevertheless, I should confess that it took me several listenings to begin to orient myself in Kõrvits’ creative landscape of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Still, I would claim that his music definitely grows on the attentive listener. This “new voice from Estonia” definitely deserves to be given some serious listening consideration.