Site review by Geohominid April 30, 2010
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|Runes are a kind of Nordic lettering which carries magical import. Or, amongst several other meanings (as Harmonia Mundi's booklet tells us) the word is used in Finland for any kind of poem, song or verse, particularly from the Kalevala, the Finnish national book of epic poetry. Hillier and his incomparable Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir present a programme which explores the way in which various forms of Finnish peasant music have been adopted and adapted by successive eastern Baltic composers.
How did the Estonians get involved in all this, by the way? Briefly, Finnish and Esthonian are closely related languages, and in general terms the Finns and Esthonian populations descend from ancient peoples living east of the Urals who migrated northwards and settled in the eastern Baltic region. They thus have many shared traditions.
Veljo Tormis (b. 1930) is one of Estonia's most famous composers and the finest author of choral works in his generation (he retired from composition in 2000). 'Laulusild' (Bridge of Song, 1981) is a stirring setting of the opening words of the Kalevala, inviting singers to gather and begin telling the old tales. It clearly shows how the infectious runic speech-rhythms easily form chants which in turn can be adapted into wonderful modern choral settings. The sound and mood very much recalls Sibelius' Kullervo Symphony.
The second item in the programme is aptly by Sibelius himself; 'Rakastava' (The Lover) was first composed for male voices in 1894, then arranged for mixed choir (the present version) in 1899, and finally for strings in 1911, the form in which it is generally heard. Its text, poignantly describing love lost, is from the Kanteletar, a collection of lyrics and ballads which forms an appendix to the Kalevala. Sibelius is in his most lyrical mood.
Three songs by the interestingly-named Estonian Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) follow. He was an inveterate collector of folk songs, and these three choral settings are a delight. 'Sing, Sing, Sickles' is a classic work-song, strongly rhythmic and onomatopoeic; 'Sleep, sleep, little Matsit' forms a hypnotic lullaby, and 'Why are you chirping, little bird' tests the air to find if Spring is arriving, with sly humour.
Returning to Tormis, the longest and most ambitious work on the disc is his epic story of 'The Bishop and the Pagan', originally composed for the King's Singers but marvellously increased in stature by this colourful choral recasting. This murder story tells of an English Bishop being killed by a Finnish farmer in 1158, the time when Christianity was first being introduced to the pagan Baltic folk. It comes down from both points of view, in the form of an MS Latin Gregorian chant from Britain and a number of folk songs telling the Finnish end of the story. From its initially authentic setting of the plainchant to the defiant shouting of the village men ("Kill him, kill him") goaded by the shrieks of the village women, this is a gripping performance with epic import. The action is made all the more vivid by the producer's use of changes in distance of sections of the choir, and vivid antiphonal exchanges tossed across the sound stage.
Eric Bergman (Finnish, 1911-2006) entitled his 'Lapponia' after a German C17th book about Lapland. Four highly picaresque portraits of the northern-most part of Scandinavia are stunningly evoked by his use of wordless invented syllables. Such unorthodox vocal techniques have become familiar to the skilful members of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and their sound portrayals are atmospheric and evocative. 'Midwinter', a period of perpetual darkness, is represented by bass voices singing open-throatedly in their deepest ranges, while monotonous humming and distant lamenting vocalisations from tenors and sopranos describe the barren Winter-bound landscape. A final chaotic flurry of high soprano notes sounds like snowflakes whirling in a blizzard. A baritone imitates a Yoik (or Joik), which is a characteristic form of solo song, believed to carry great magic. Having heard a Lapp yoiking outside his reindeer-skin tent during a sunny midsummer night, I can attest to the psychological power of this music. 'Midsummer Night' itself is pictured with rapt celestial singing from the women (this special night, with its shamanic overtones, is still celebrated all over Scandinavia with great enthusiasm - and alcohol). Finally, 'Storm on the fells' is a virtuosically invoked raising of howling winds and lightening.
Tormis' music also ends the programme, with the full set of his 'St John's Day' songs, several of which have appeared on other of Hiller's Estonian discs. They are vibrant cameos of village life, vibrantly warm, joyful and bustling, a perfect showcase for the wonderful enthusiasm of this remarkable choir and its flawless technique and ensemble.
Presented in a warmly resonant church acoustic, whose attributes are used to the full by the singers and producers, this is just how the choir sound in concert. The MC track in particular adds greatly to the choral effects and impact, although I wish the producer had the courage to go a step further and use the surround channels; 'The Bishop and Pagan' and 'Lapponia' could have been given a new interpretative dimension. The Digipak holds a glossy, well illustrated and substantial booklet, with an account of the music and full texts in several languages.
It strikes me that this particular programme would make a fine introduction to the whole series of Baltic Voices discs for listeners who have not yet discovered their delights. An excellent collection of choral pieces, rendered with consummate artistry.
Copyright © 2010 John Miller and SA-CD.net