Tõnu Kõrvits: You Are Light and Morning

Ample vocal and instrumental forces are called upon for You Are Light and Morning (Sei la luce et il mattino), the hour-long work for choir and orchestra Tõnu Kõrvits (b. 1969) composed in 2019. Yet while that might be the case, the work itself is anything but bombastic; instead, atmosphere, understatement, and nuance distinguish the Estonian composer’s artful creation. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir along with the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra led by conductor Risto Joost show themselves to be exceptionally attuned to the character of Kõrvits’ material.

As it should, the tone of the work derives from the texts from which it’s drawn, specifically the poetry of Cesare Pavese (1908-1950). As many of the themes that preoccupy Kõrvits also captivated the Italian writer decades earlier, it’s only natural that the composer would have gravitated to his writing. In the composer’s view, Pavese’s poems reflect a deep reverence for nature; they brim with life yet also express yearning, sorrow, and nostalgia and an awareness of the fleeting nature of living things. In keeping with that, each part in You Are Light and Morning ends by fading away. Yet in spite of the transience of all things, our indefatigable thirst for life never wavers. (Pavese’s own, however, ended in suicide when he overdosed on sleeping pills at a Turin hotel, despite having received in the last year of his life a prestigious Italian literature prize.)

With the orchestra playing a darkly hued minor chord, the work fades in as if mysteriously materializing from air, after which the choir emerges for the work’s first part “Tu sei come una terra,” its title alluding to the connection between human life and the natural world. Strings and voices move fluidly through haunting passages where male and female singers in places intone collectively and in others in counterpoint. With “To C. From C.” having presented the poet’s open declaration of love to American actress Constance Dowling, “Paesaggio VIII” introduces water-related content, the move vividly reflected in both the text (“From the silence or the darkness the sound of water / rises to join the distant laughter and voices”) and the lilting motion of the choral and orchestral elements.

In the fourth part, “La casa,” pizzicato playing in the strings, the gesture perhaps suggesting the march of time, and hushed phrasings by the female choir add to the fragile quality of You Are Light and Morning. Male tenors and basses introduce “Anche tu sei l’amore” before eloquent cello playing by Leho Karin emerges to reset the balance between vocal and instrumental parts. A hint of Shostakovich surfaces in the deep bass utterances that begin “Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi,” the text now addressing death and its remorseless grip directly (“Death has a look for everyone”). Though its text still concerns death, the seventh part, “Last Blues, to Be Read Some Day”, distances itself from the others in coupling pizzicato strings with a strong solo turn by altoist Marianne Pärna.

Nearing the work’s close, “Postludium. Landscapes” presents a softly shimmering meditation of wordless voices and sparse instrumental accents before the end arrives with the eighth part, “In the Morning You Always Come Back,” its hopeful message having to do with the perpetual renewal of nature and life. It hardly needs be said that admirers of Arvo Pärt’s music will find much to love about You Are Light and Morning. Kõrvits’ work shares many qualities with those of his fellow Estonian—grace, restraint, purity, and so on. It stands up on its own terms, however, especially when it so cohesively gathers a number of Pavese’s poems into a single presentation. Kõrvits artfully sequenced the texts in a way that accentuates his and the poet’s thematic concerns while at the same time ensuring that his creation would assume the form of a seamlessly integrated whole.

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