In a final report for Wales Arts Review from the Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2015, Steph Power offers an introduction to Estonia and its distinguished son, the composer Arvo Pärt, before discussing two superb concerts by world-leading Estonian ensembles:
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Conductor: Kaspars Putniņš
All Saints Church, Penarth, May 21 2015
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Leader: Harry Traksmann
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, May 22 2015
‘The Republic of Estonia, a small country on the shores of the Baltic Sea, declared independence from the Russian empire in 1918; was occupied by Soviet forces in 1940 and regained sovereignty in 1991.’
Estonian Music: a Brief Historical Overview (Estonian Music Information Centre, 2008)
This matter-of-fact, almost terse, precis of recent Estonian history conceals a world of hardship and suffering inflicted on the country’s tiny population; forced to withstand the occupation of the Russians, then the Germans and latterly the Soviets, for much of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, national feeling and the determination to stand tall in independence remain high – not least with political expansionism and ethnic conflicts currently casting new shadows across the Baltic region from the east.
An area of culture in which Estonians justifiably take pride is their now-thriving music scene, increasingly outward-looking in nature, but built on indigenous traditions which successive oppressors failed to quash. During the post-war years, Estonian composers like others in the USSR found their creative freedom squeezed through constraining and often unpredictable Party diktats – and, of course, they had very little exposure to the astringent, radical modernism then taking hold across western continental Europe.
Arvo Pärt was initially excited by serial techniques, for instance, but became profoundly disillusioned upon his arrival in the West (in 1980) when he ‘discovered that the very same composers that I had taken as models, and because of whom I had been accused of being a friend of capitalism, were trying with their own compositions to fight against capitalism’ (his emphasis). This paradoxical ‘germ of conflict’, as he saw it, within the world of new music was a major factor in his withdrawal and subsequent inner struggle to find his personal compositional voice. In the process, and propelled by a deep religious faith, Pärt developed an arresting musical style rooted in ancient European music, which not only nourished the growing national sensibility in Estonia, but which today remains beloved of listeners around the world.
Key within those same, once so stubbornly resistant, Estonian traditions are the Song Festivals which, together with the choir traditions celebrated alongside, are born from a strongly aural culture. Arguably, it is in choral writing that Pärt and his compatriots of successive generations have shone most brightly, creating a repertoire of extraordinary expressive depth and universal appeal. Matching that brightness in performance terms, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir represents a pinnacle of choral excellence and – in a statistic bound to engender rueful national comparison in Welsh composers – over 50% of the music they perform is Estonian.
At the Vale of Glamorgan Festival this year, we were fortunate indeed that both the Choir and the superb string players of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra were able to visit for three concerts; two given separately, and one jointly at the Festival’s culmination on May 23.
At All Saints Church in Penarth (May 21) the audience was enthralled by some of the most sublime choral singing to be heard anywhere. The EPC Choir live is a wonderful experience. Nowhere else have I encountered the sheer stillness and ease with which these singers launch every entry; as if with no intake of breath, and yet capable of sustaining the longest, most challenging phrase. Their pitching is as nuanced as it is precise, with consonance and dissonance alike seeming to shimmer with a purity that’s physically palpable, enhanced by an uncanny, all but vibrato-less, colouring of the sound. Here, the brilliance of the 26-strong Choir was matched by the simplicity of their presentation, with Chief Conductor Kaspars Putniņš a model of relaxed expressivity. Not a gesture was wasted, nor overdone.
The first half of the concert was dedicated to Pärt in his 80th birthday year. We heard five pieces in total – not all necessarily of his best or most widely known, but forming a precious overview of his work across some forty years, from the short Solfedzo (1963) to the wonderful Nunc Dimittis of 2001. There was passion here, and compassion; serenity – and flashes of unexpected humour from a composer perhaps too often cast as doleful or steeped in transcendent anguish. For me, the highlight was the Magnificat (1989) which has become a genuine classic of the choral repertoire; both popular and beautifully refined in its tintinnabuli technique.* The Ode VII Memento (1994) balanced women and men in contrasting lyrical sections, whilst Dopo la vittoria (1996/98) had an Italianate flavour in its setting of part of the Te Deum on the 1600th anniversary of the death of St Ambrose.
The second half of the concert boasted a striking UK premiere by a younger Estonian composer. Märt-Matis Lill’s The Dream Stream (2015) embraced a world of subtle vocal and pre-recorded natural sounds; sighing, whispers, bubbling streams, leaves and butterflies in the breeze. Inspired by Joik singing, the piece explored important cultural ties between Estonians and the indigenous Sami people of Northern Scandinavia.
Looking back to darker times, Tower Bell in My Village, written in 1978 by Pärt’s distinguished colleague Veijo Tormis, may have sounded quaintly pastoral to us sitting comfortably in Penarth, 2015, but I found myself wondering how defiant it would have sounded to Soviet ears at the time, in its yearning plea to protect ancient cultures. The vitality of the work was clear – as, indeed, was the diction of the Choir singing in beautifully-enunciated English.
Music, as much else in life, is so often about context. And there was surely no better setting in which to hear the Bulgarian-British Dobrinka Tabakova’s St. John of Rila Troparion, and especially her magnificent Of the Sun Born (both 2008), which two pieces opened the second half. The radiant power of the latter was simply stunning, with its soaring women’s voices supported by softly shifting harmonies. The piece is a setting of words by the celebrated Bulgarian poet and politician, Blaga Dimitrova (1922-2003), whose lifetime encompassed so much pain, turmoil and transformation in her own, beloved country. In an unforgettable evening, it was an exquisite highlight.
*****The following lunchtime (May 22), the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra took to the stage of BBC Hoddinott Hall to give what turned out to be a further masterclass in shared understanding and exceptional musicianship. These eighteen string-players communicated a bone-deep knowledge of each other as individual performers, and of the glorious sound they were creating together; unconducted, but led with an incisive elegance by first violinist, Harry Traksmann. The same values that underpin the EPC Choir were apparent here, with a similar, seemingly effortless ability to weave individual sounds into a whole of stunning richness and precision.
It was an all-Estonian concert, with pieces by four composers effectively representing an overview of music written for chamber strings between the early sixties and into the new millenium. Jaan Rääts’ Concerto for Chamber Orchestra Op. 16 (1961) is a landmark of post-war new music in Estonia. Written by one of Pärt’s most esteemed and influential peers, the piece is credited with bringing a new, neoclassical energy to Estonian music in a troubled and uncertain time. Here in Cardiff, over 50 years later, it felt more gently witty than ironically subversive in its five movements contrasting lively, rhythmic sections with more lyrical writing. As with Tormis’ choir piece, perhaps context is key.
Pärt’s Trisagion (1992/1994) which followed was full of surprising drama. A piece with its own gentle humour, Pärt pitches silence against a rigorously organised, seemingly disjointed music. Apparently, the different instrumental parts are each underwritten by the Orthodox Slavonic text which inspired the work, revealing the composer’s essentially voice-oriented sensibility.
Next came a piece by a composer more commonly associated to date with instrumental music: one of Jaan Rääts’ most celebrated former pupils world-wide, Erkki-Sven Tüür. His Action.Passion.Illusion (1993) takes in swirling, vigorous textures, mournful passion and propulsive rhythms in an electrifying 15-minute span. Here, it was given an intense performance, with the inner movement especially striking in its juxtaposition of sweeping tonal and atonal harmonies.
From there it seemed a natural progression to Tõnu Kõrvits’ spellbinding Elegies of Thule (2007). Cast in three sections, the piece is a kind of hymn to the Estonian people and their beloved nature. In it Kõrvits turns to folksong as the ‘most primordial’ source in depicting the ‘mystic and mysterious Northern land’ of Thule – which, he laughingly later insisted in interview with Peter Reynolds,** of course exists within the land of Estonia, regardless of other nations’ claims!
It is not for nothing that Kõrvits is often described as the ‘poet and romantic’ of Estonian music. From nocturnal winds to dulcimer-like bell sounds, to gazing up a hill; the piece evoked a sense of wonder and deep sincerity. It may have been inspired by things extra-musical, but the whole added up to a beautiful sonic journey, undertaken with passionate commitment by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra.
This was no simplistic rose-tinted idyll, but an intense elegiac appeal, shot through with the ambivalence and yearning of history. Here in Cardiff, it closed a magical concert, and formed a poignant testament to the unflagging spirit of a nation.
* A technique often associated with bell sounds, but rather denoting a mathematical arrangement of pitches relative to one another in which materials are pared down to the most essential.
** part of an afternoon focus on Estonian music, overseen by the Estonian Embassy and elegantly presented by Reynolds.