Two songs to words by Ernst Enno
Three Estonian game songs
Three songs from the epic ‘Kalev’s Son’
Singing aboard ship
Four Estonian lullabies
Childhood memory (Herding calls)
Recorded July 2007 in All Hollows Church, Gospel Oak, London
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: June 2008
CD No: HYPERION CDA 67601
Duration: 72 minutes
Even more celebrated at home than his more internationally famous countryman Arvo Pärt, Tormis has devoted the bulk of his life’s work to defining and preserving Estonia’s national musical heritage; the paradox being that for most of his career he was a Soviet artist working for a regime intent on ‘Russifying’ its satellites – which, from 1944 to 1991, included Estonia. Tormis retired in 2000, but (judging from a photograph with Stephen Layton in the booklet) the composer brought his expertise and authority to this project.
Most works on this disc fall into one of two categories: original settings from before the mid-1960s, of a folk-inspired nature (the earliest dating from 1948); and subsequent arrangements of genuine folk material. It’s all accessible stuff, and it rewards dedicated listening. There are shades of Vaughan Williams, Kodály and others; but above all Tormis’s music is a uniquely committed celebration of his homeland.
The Holst Singers tackle this largely unfamiliar repertoire with refinement, intelligence and clarity. With immaculate tuning, superb ensemble and confident step-out soloists, the performances are sensitive, lively and enthralling – if perhaps lacking that last ounce of characterisation needed to rise above the choir’s unmistakably English mould (although the singers’ Estonian sounds thoroughly convincing).
No doubt each listener will have favourite moments, but a few of the most distinctive songs include the atmospheric “Singing aboard ship” (1983) – weeping sweethearts left on the shore as their young men are conscripted to fight at sea; the highly evocative “Autumn landscapes” (1964) – rendered with tenderness and subtlety; and the mesmeric “Estonian game songs” (1972), with haunting chants and rich harmonies.
The Holst Singers prove to be fine advocates for Tormis, treating his music with the respect it deserves and showing that there is much worth exploring. This release can be warmly recommended.