Estonian Incantations I
Tauno AINTS (b 1975)
Vitsa (Flogging) concerto for electric guitar and mixed choir (2013) [20:56]
…teid täname… (…we thank you…) for mixed choir and improvisers (2013) [6:36]
Sven GRÜNBERG (b 1956)
Kas ma Sind leian? (Will I Find You?) for chamber choir and seven-string acoustic guitar (2016) [8:01]
Robert JÜRJENDAL (b 1966)
See öö oli pikk (The Night Was Long) for chamber choir and three electric guitars (2013) [11:05]
Raul SÖÖT (b 1969)
Vaikusestki vaiksem (Quieter than Silence) for chamber choir and two guitars (2013) [9:57]
Marzi Nyman (guitar)
Andre Maaker (seven-string acoustic guitar)
Ain Agan (fretless guitar)
Paul Daniel (electric guitar)
Annika Lõhmus (vocals)
Weekend Guitar Trio
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Kaspars Putniņš
rec. 2016, United Methodist Church, Tallinn, Estonia
Texts and translations included

Estonian Incantations I represents the first disc I have encountered on Toccata Next, an imprint of Martin Anderson’s exploratory and pioneering label Toccata. Without wishing to be too overt, it is instructive to quote directly the brief mission statement on Toccata’s website: “Toccata Next maintains the spirit of discovery of Toccata Classics: interesting programmes of generally unknown music, and from as wide a catchment area – geographically, historically, stylistically – as possible. But Toccata Next has a more catholic policy on repertoire, free from the Toccata Classics policy of presenting one composer at a time. Like its parent label, though, Toccata Next generally presents first recordings – of fascinating music you won’t find anywhere else.”

With this disc, at least, Anderson has comprehensively delivered on this promise. The catalogue is hardly overflowing with music for choir and guitars, electric, acoustic and those in between. In this case the choir is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, without question one of the finest groups on Earth. The guitarists and composers are less well-known, at least here in the UK; one suspects that if they came from London or New York this would not be the case. Tallinn may be less than four hours away by air but in musical terms it occupies another planet. There are five pieces by four composers on this disc whose names, I’m ashamed to say, are totally unknown to me (and I thought I knew something about Baltic music in general and Estonian music in particular!). Take the guitars out of the equation completely and the quality of the choral/vocal writing in each of these works is exceptional. But this isn’t simply a case of a crack choir making anything sound good. These pieces are indeed often beautiful and sometimes challenging to the listener, but each is strikingly original in its own right and all seem to grow in impact on subsequent listens.

I strongly suspect there can’t be many works of any kind inspired by flogging and Tauno Aints’s Vitsapresumably sets a precedent. It’s a two movement ‘concerto’ for electric guitar and choir whose texts derive from primitivist Estonian regional incantations against flogging (in the first movement) and pain (in the second). These chants take the form of evocative childlike rhymes (so an excerpt from the translation of the ‘Charm against flogging’ is “Wool to the whip end, fur to the birch rod, tufts to the alder rod…” The crashing distortions on the guitar that open this first movement are set against rapid, urgent syllabic chanting , while the instrumental part soon settles into a pattern of alternating calming Metheny-like figures with more confrontational, distortion drenched gestures. Slow episodes involve lots of atmospherics on the guitar. Soloist Marzi Nyman’s effects pedal seems to be working overtime throughout this piece, while the choral writing is terrifically varied and often delicately beautiful. The central section concludes with the kind of extended high riffing (over a quiet choral backdrop) that recalls another ECM stalwart, Terje Rydpal, before Aints revisits the original section and adds a sequence of effects, which are by turn disarming and hypnotic. At times the recording engineers seem to face real challenges in maintaining an audible choral sound in the face of some deafening, metal guitar textures, but more often than not the sound emerges pretty cleanly and holds up unexpectedly well. The second movement Charm against pain features more conventionally consoling material for the singers. The Estonian choir project this serene music with consummate security. The guitar role in this shorter movement is more restrained and less obviously virtuosic; its gestures tending to delicacy rather than provocation. The last couple of minutes of Vitsa are unusual and unforgettable; the choir sustain a soft major chord over a quiet but complex riff, which is matched note for note by a single, wordless voice (presumably the guitarist’s).

Sven Grünberg’s bewitching Kas ma Sind leian? (Will I Find You?) sets a text which simply repeats the four words of the title over a spectacularly written accompaniment for a seven string acoustic guitar, brilliantly played by Andre Maaker. Given the simplicity of the words, this short work covers an extensive emotional terrain, exploring as it does the constant quest of each human being to find companionship, love, self-acceptance and ultimately meaning. The variety and directness of Grünberg’s accomplished vocal writing is superbly conveyed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir whose sound here at times approaches sonic velvet.

While all the pieces on this disc have much to commend them, for me the pick of the bunch is Robert Jürjendal’s See öö oli pikk (The Night Was Long) where the choir is accompanied by three electric guitars (one of which is played by the composer) and some telling electronic effects. The text is drawn from a poem by the contemporary Estonian poet Doris Kareva whose title translates as ‘Gardens of Nothingness’; it alludes to the anxieties and hopes experienced during hibernal sleep and to the warmth provided by another. The spectrally magical effects with which the piece begins at once provide a mysterious, yet oddly comforting cocoon of sound. When the choir enter, the drone upon which the whole is built could represent the soil itself. Odd sounds reveal themselves in fragmented form, eventually making the listener more aware that these are indeed guitars and while the choral writing is close and serious, the overall effect is otherworldly. If Jürjendal’s music unfailingly projects the essence of the words, in the work’s latter stages the synthetic sounds do seem to communicate the awakening of nature. The choir’s final entry at 8:32 is entrancing and magical, the voices swell and melt into an ethereal electronic halo.

Raul Sööt’s Vaikusestki vaiksem (Quieter than Silence) for chamber choir and two guitars utilises a short text by the composer in an attempt to explore the hinterland between sound and silence, and the intersections between music of devotion and entertainment. The two guitars are subtly amplified here – one is fretless. After an extended introduction the choral material unfolds from an austere, refined monody, which seems to owe something to Gregorian chant. The solo voice of one of the choir’s sopranos, Annika Lõhmus, hovers spectrally above the choral and instrumental textures that merge as the work heads to its conclusion, when the voices combine to evoke the percussive sounds of the outside world, both human and natural.

The album concludes with a short prayer of gratitude by Tauno Aints, “… teid täname…” (…we thank you…) which alternates brief strophic verses with amplified guitar improvisations; the last but one of which seems to owe something to Rhythm ‘n’ Blues. Like all the items on this issue here too, Toccata’s engineers somehow succeed in finding a convincing balance between voices, instruments and amplification.

One of the best things I haven’t mentioned about this disc is its title. Estonian Incantations I invokes the hope, perhaps even the expectation that Estonian Incantations II will follow in due course. I for one cannot wait.

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