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CD Review

Veljo Tormis

Litany to Thunder

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Tõnu Kaljuste
ECM New Series 1687 465223-2 DDD 62:59
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What a fascinating CD this is. Veljo Tormis, who was born in 1930, is an Estonian composer, and this is a collection of his music for choir. (The opening and closing selections are for two soprano soloists, however.) Tormis's writing is a synthesis of the old and the new. Centuries-old words and melodies are the basis of these works; this is the folklore of the Baltic and Finnish peoples who have lived around the Gulf of Finland. Tormis deeply believes in the strength of these original materials, and he doesn't dress them up with prettified harmonies and the other trappings of modern musical civilization. Nevertheless, his choral writing is that of a modernist. He is not hesitant to concentrate the ancient power of the pre-Christian "runo songs" with expressive devices that seem paradoxically contemporary.

The title work is setting for tenor, bass, male choir, and bass drum. Essentially, it's a shamanistic rain-dance, and the effect of the pleading, shouting, keening choir and the massive drum is so powerful that I would want to bring a raincoat to even an indoor performance of Litany to Thunder. Another work along the same lines is Curse Upon Iron, which replaces the bass drum with a shaman drum and adds female voices to the choir. The words are modern, but they are based on motifs from the ancient Kalevala. To driving dotted rhythms, the chorus exorcises this "spiller of innocent blood." At the work's climax, the chorus sings about nuclear warheads and plutonium as it imitates the hair-raising sound of an air-raid siren. A bit of actual history is told in The Bishop and the Pagan. In the first part of this work, the chorus sings in Latin from the viewpoint of the British "gladiator for Christ" who came to Finland in 1158. In the second part, it takes the viewpoint of the Finnish farmer Lalli who brutally murdered him.

It's not all gloom and doom on this CD. The importance of the sea in the lives of the Baltic and Finnish peoples is reflected in Singing Aboard Ship and Songs of the Ancient Sea. The latter is a potpourri for tenor and male choir, and it encompasses the nostalgia, pride, and love of adventure of the people who sailed the Gulf of Finland even a millennium ago, and all to music that is strikingly old and new at the same time. Women's voices sing How Can I Recognize My Home?, The Singer's Childhood, and The Lost Geese, adding more intimate and domestic colors to the overall picture.

The music on this CD is strikingly beautiful, and fresh and challenging like a stiff Baltic breeze. The Estonian choir performs with incredible virtuosity, and the soloists, mostly taken from the choir, sing with discipline while retaining a natural, non-operatic quality. The engineering is superb; this CD was recorded in the Estonian Concert Hall in Talinn. Strike up another unusual and artistically thought-provoking disc from Manfred Eicher and his team at ECM New Series.

Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle