The new album of music by the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis (1930-2017), called Reminiscentiae, stays well in line with the editorial line of ECM: perfectly committed to Northern European music and its hidden treasuries.

This composer’s name is still rarely heard in the current concert scene, with the exception of his choral music. No wonder: Mr. Tormis has written more than 500 choral pieces. His music is greatly favored by the Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, who, with the help of an excellent Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, is slowly recording the opera omnia of the composer. Their decades-long friendship and collaboration lead to a certain number of orchestral arrangements of existing choral music, works which are partly present on this CD.

ECM 2793 cover art

ECM 2793 cover art

It has to be said right from the beginning that Estonian folk music — wholly neglected because of the oppressive regime of the former Soviet Union, which didn’t allow expressions of local culture, and partly forgotten as so many local, regional, or ethnic sources are — is a formidable presence in the whole output of Mr. Tormis.

The lines are simple, the harmony could be from the precedent century, and nothing reminds us that some revolutionary things happened meanwhile in different fields of art. A certain parallel could be found in Arvo Pärt and his minimalism, even if Pärt has much more to say by his technique in rarefying his musical material.

The CD opens with its longest track, “The Tower Bell in My Village,” for choir, two sopranos, reciter, and bell, written in 1978.

Quite exceptionally, the text is not Estonian folk poetry as in most of the other works. Still, we can be surprised by an exceptional pairing with one of the best European poets of recent times, the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). This choice definitely adds more than a few layers of depth and quality to the score.

It is difficult to remain indifferent in front of words like:

I can see as much of the universe from my village
as I can see from anywhere on earth…
And so my village is as big as any country.
For I am as tall as I am able to see
and not simply as tall as I am.

Somehow this vision is present in all the musical output of Veljo Tormis.

It has to be said that the beautiful voices of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, with only a few singers for every section, are definitely not a big choir in the sense of the traditional 80 and more singers, but with their pristine intonation, perfect pronunciation, and precise rhythms are definitely far better than many well-known choral ensembles.

The rest of the CD is a compilation of miniatures, some lasting less than forty seconds, depicting the nature and the daily joys and sorrows of life.

Titles like: “Clouds racing across the sky,” “Cold autumn night,” or “Winter morning” are sometimes promising more than the composer is able to say with his music. The major problem can be seen in the transposition of purely choral pieces to a string orchestra, with which the octogenarian composer was clearly unfamiliar, resulting in mixed quality.

One another piece of great quality is present at the end of this installment: “Herding Calls – Childhood Memories” in a version for choir, soprano, and orchestra. (The original composition is from 1982, therefore this transcription of 2020 is definitely not made by the composer.)

The text is based on onomatopoeia for sounds of herding, like: “helle, hellelee, alleaa, alleaa, tutuluu, tutuluu, eo, eo,” which have, per se, no meaning. This procedure, used by many other composers in the past (Bartok, Martinu, and Lutoslawski, to name a few), depends heavily on the voice that transforms them into music. In this case, we are lucky to have soprano Maria Valdmaa as the best imaginable choice. In her version, this score reaches a quality and a thrilling beauty that saves the whole score.

While this composer is certainly not someone to shake the course of music’s history and transform it, this CD might be a wise choice for lovers of Estonian music and its atmospheres. ■


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