Veljo Tormis (1930-2017)
Veiko Tubin (reciter); Annika Lõhmus; Triin Sakermaa; Maria Valdmaa (soprano); Iris Oja (mezzo-soprano); Indrik Vau (trumpet); Madis Metsamart (percussion); Linda Vood (flute)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Tõnu Kaljuste
rec. 2020, Methodist Church, Tallinn, Estonia
Sung texts with English translation
Reviewed as download from press preview
ECM 4858892 [77]

Together with Arvo Pärt and Erkki-Sven Tüür, Veljo Tormis is probably the best known Estonian composer. He was primarily was a choral composer with more than 500 works to his credit, but his oeuvre also encompassed orchestral music, film music, an opera and more. When he turned 70 in 2000 he announced that he “would officially  draw an end to his creative career and retire” – and he did, insofar as he never composed a new work, but spent another fifteen years editing and transcribing earlier compositions, supervising recordings etc. The result of this work is to a certain extent the contents of this disc. Tõnu Kaljuste, who collaborated with Tormis for many decades, has contributed to it. The overriding title is very telling: this is in many respects a matter of old wine in new bottles. For me, as a longstanding admirer of Tormis’ choral writing, the orchestral works came as a pleasant surprise. His choral music has a special twist that makes him stand out; his orchestral sound is also very individual.

The programme begins with a work that the then young Kaljuste commissioned as early as 1978, when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union. At that time, church bells were seldom heard in Estonian churches, owing to the negative attitude to religion of the Soviet authorities. Kaljuste wanted to pay attention to this problem in a planned concert tour with his choir, and handed over poems by the Portuguese poet Fernando Passoa, from which Juhan Viiding compiled a libretto, translated from Portuguese by Ain Kaalep. This became a concerto in five movements, titled The Tower Bell in My Village, for choir, two sopranos, reciter and bell. The music is repetitive and hypnotic, harmonically harsh and sometimes dissonant, as if sprung from the Estonian soil. Rhythmic and dramatic sections alter with more contemplative moments, and through this fabric of sounds the bell tolls – sometimes distantly, sometimes with penetrating force. The reciter has a central role, and he is utterly expressive – although despite my having visited Estonia many times during the last fifteen years, my knowledge of the language is limited, and it is difficult to judge exactly how expressive he is, since I had to follow the English translation to get the content. Anyway, the overall impression is gripping, and when the last sounds had died away I had to stop the CD player for a while for some contemplation.

The following four songs are Estonian folk songs, which have always been an essential source of inspiration for Tormis – or, as he is quoted saying in the foreword to his mighty set of six song cycles issued under the collective title Forgotten Peoples more than thirty years ago, “I do not use folk songs, it is folk song that uses me. To me, folk music is not a means of self-expression; on the contrary, I feel the need to express the essence of folk music, its spirit, meaning, and form.” The first of these, the choral piece Worry Breaks the Spirit, was composed in 1972, but is here performed with orchestral accompaniment added by Tõnu Kaljuste. It is calm and beautiful. The mini-cycle Melancholy Songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra was written in 1979 when Tormis was around fifty. It is melancholy and becomes more so step by step. Iris Oja sings  with plangent tone and portamenti glidings that a folk singer would do. The third movement, Orphan’s Lament is truly sorrowful.

The Remenicentiae for orchestra is divided in four sections: Autumn Landscapes, Winter patterns, Spring Sketches and Summer Motifs, each of these divided in sub sections, thus providing twenty miniature impressions covering the whole Estonian year, none longer than 2:25 and more than a third under one minute. In Northern Lights (track16) we hear a solo trumpet (Indrek Vau) and in Spring and Summer percussionist Madis Metsamart joins the strings, having a field day in Thunderstorm (track 24), but also imitates the call of the cuckoo at the end of In Late Spring on the xylophone. There are many such felicities in these charming, entertaining pieces, which are easy to digest and a suitable gateway to Tormis’ tonal world for those who may find some of his choral music a too hard nut to crack.

As a bonus we also get Three I Had Those Words of Beauty, a love song originally written for male choir but here performed without the text with orchestra and flute. Linda Vood’s exuberant playing sparkles with joy – Veljo Tormis in his happiest mood.

The remaining two pieces were also originally written for male choir, Hamlet’s Song I in 1965 and Herding Calls – Childhood Memories in 1982, while Tõnu Kaljusto transcribed them for mixed choir and orchestra in 2020. The Hamlet song (text Paul-Eerik Rummo) is dramatic, while the Herding Calls is a jolly and dancing folk melody with traditional text. Maria Valdmaa is the fresh soprano soloist. This charming rounds off a highly enjoyable and varied programme. I first heard the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir here in Sweden more than 25 years ago. They were masterly then and has remained in the premier league ever since. Tallinn Chamber Orchestra is also a first class ensemble and ECM’s recording can always be relied upon.

Those of us who admire Veljo Tormis – and we are quite a few – should order a copy without delay, and those who have not yet come under his spell, should at least give him a try.


Look more: MusicWeb International