The Choir of Royal Holloway have proved themselves as inspirational performers of contemporary Baltic music through their previous recordings.
The main work on this fascinating album is based on Estonian folk hymns, an unusual variant of folk melodies, collected in the early twentieth century for the first time by Cyrillus Kreek, who was the Estonian equivalent of Bartók or Grainger. Most of these religious folk songs were originally eighteenth-century Lutheran hymns which have been passed across generations and embellished with elements of secular folk-singing. During the Soviet regime, the singing of these religious songs was forbidden and this cultural genre was all but forgotten. By the end of the twentieth century fresh light could be shone on these folk collections, and Tõnu Kõrvits (born 1969) was particularly struck by the fresh possibilities and newly discovered meanings of folk hymns. In writing Kreek’s Notebook Kõrvits pays homage to Cyrillus Kreek while presenting a contemporary view of folk hymns. Although there is a dramatic unity to this eight-movement work, there is much diversity in timbre and scoring. The effect is improvisatory in the creative ornamentation of the vocal lines, and suffused with dreamy textures that bring to mind the great tradition of Eastern European choral writing.
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On the face of it, the neighbouring Baltic States of Estonia and Latvia may seem to have much in common. Both countries have survived centuries of foreign domination and occupation. Both countries achieved true independence following the First World War only to endure decades of Soviet occupation. But where Estonia and Latvia differ markedly is in their language and historical roots. Latvia has, over the centuries, mostly been dominated by southern or eastern powers (Germany, Poland and Russia in particular) and the language has some affinity with Lithuanian. Estonia has always had strong connections with northerly neighbours and the language is closely related to Finnish.
What certainly unites all three Baltic States is the love of singing, not only because singing is a communal activity that gives both social and musical pleasure, but because the preservation of a rich culture of folk song is a matter of national pride. Indeed, the preservation of national identity through the defiant singing of folk songs played a pivotal role in emancipating the Baltic States from Soviet rule. Whilst collecting folk songs and incorporating them into contemporary music was widespread across Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century, it is only really the Baltic States that have remained fascinated by this musical genre through to the present day.
The most important collector of folk melodies in Estonia was Cyrillus Kreek (born as Karl Ustav Kreek in 1889). He was the first to research and collect folk hymns, an unusual variant of folk melodies, and many of his arrangements have since become part of the repertory of Estonian choirs. Most of these religious folk songs were originally eighteenth-century Lutheran hymns which have been passed across generations and embellished with elements of secular folk-singing within that region. Older Estonian folk melodies, known as runic songs, were also sometimes allied to Psalm texts. During the Soviet regime, the singing of these religious songs was forbidden and this cultural genre was all but forgotten. By the end of the twentieth century fresh light could be shone on these folk collections, and Tõnu Kõrvits (born 1969) was particularly struck by the fresh possibilities and newly discovered meanings of folk hymns: ‘The music in Kreek’s collection is highly captivating … It reflects so perfectly the nature of our Nordic country and the soul of the Estonians.’
Kõrvits graduated in 1994 from the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre (studying with Raimo Kangro) and, following postgraduate studies with Jaan Rääts, he returned to the academy in 2001 to teach composition and orchestration. Against the background of established Estonian composers Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis, Kõrvits’ sound world stands out as highly poetic, and full of visionary fantasies. His work embraces all the traditional genres from orchestral music, instrumental ensembles and works for solo instruments to choral music, solo songs and operas. In addition, he is highly regarded as an accomplished arranger of popular music and has composed soundtracks for several animation films.
In writing Kreek’s Notebook Kõrvits pays homage to Cyrillus Kreek while presenting a contemporary view of folk hymns. These melodies are already highly ornamented and yet Kõrvits goes beyond these melodies in an improvisatory manner, moving through different modes, rhythms and colours. Although there is a dramatic unity to this eight-movement work, there is much diversity in timbre and scoring. The opening movement is for female voices with the flowing melodic lines of the hymn set against pizzicato strings. This buoyant undercurrent sets the tone for this joyous hymn (from the small island of Kihnu) with its refrain of ‘Küri eleis’ (‘Kyrie eleison’) lilting almost like a lullaby. The metred structure of a hymn is much more apparent in this movement than in later ones. However the real interest lies in the musical ideas emerging from the accompaniment, alongside the organic development of the sung verses in a rather timeless discantus style.
The second movement sets a darker tone, with male voices singing an evening hymn from Rapla. The chromatic ornamentation of this melody provides the stimulus for the string writing which becomes ever more dramatic. In the fourth verse we hear the melody treated in canon over a pedal drone, techniques that Kreek himself would employ in his own arrangements. The last three chords settle us into the darkness of the night with the drone of the lower strings continuing to sound until pizzicato violins lead into the third movement—a rustic instrumental waltz based on a melody from the Pärnu-Jaagupi region. It is hard not to draw comparisons here with the 'Playful pizzicato' from Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony. In fact Kõrvits is happy to acknowledge that, like Arvo Pärt, he is a great admirer of Britten’s music.
The fourth movement is stripped bare, beginning only with a repeated chant of ‘Oh võta, armas Jeesus, vastu mult’ from the basses. These first two verses of the hymn (from the small borough of Kolga-Jaani) speak of despair but are then transformed into an eruption of joy leading to the climactic line: ‘You, word of God! Recreate all now and from the heart, remove all that is old.’ There is great energy in the string writing here, especially the driving bass line which Kõrvits admits might owe a little to Jimi Hendrix. The final resonant ninth chord carries over into the next movement to provide a background to the ornamented hymn melody ‘Su hooleks ennast annan ma’ (‘I shall give myself up to your care’), sung by a solo soprano. Three instrumental variations of this tune (from Mustjala, on the island of Saaremaa) follow, with the cellos and double basses having the last weary word laden with melancholy.
The sixth movement comes as a breath of fresh air with its light string textures and open harmonics. The hymn ‘Fly up from your sorrows’ (from Otepää) actually centres mostly around G minor yet Kõrvits sets this against an accompaniment of C major, allowing the B flats to feel more like ‘blue’ notes. An instrumental link between the third and fourth verses allows the cellos to transform this melody into a folk dance. With the rhythmic addition of the double basses on the repeat there is an element of ‘rock and roll’ to the string writing. The seventh movement is for choir alone, and there is little related to the hymn melody from Lääne-Nigula beyond the opening solo. The writing is tonally much more ambiguous, from the opening descending figure repeated by the tenors and basses to the cadences which flirt with both major and minor resolutions. There is great pathos and a sense of struggle accompanying the words ‘My grief, sorrow and troubles’ with the release of ‘will finally come to an end’ only really emerging in the final bar.
Kreek’s Notebook culminates in the solemnity of the grand hymn ‘I gaze up at the hill’. A long introduction weaves an ever-more complex contrapuntal texture based around the hymn melody (again from the island of Saaremaa). Above these uplifting melodic lines the violins shimmer with overlapping open fifths. After the rousing sung rendition of this hymn, it is this same effect of overlaying bare fifths across all the upper strings which brings the work to an acquiescent conclusion. Kreek’s Notebook received its first performance on 1 June 2007 at the final concert of the Cyrillus Kreek First Music Days.
In her poem The night is darkening round me (written in 1837) Emily Brontë introduces us to a character in the first stanza who remains unidentified throughout the whole of the poem. All we know is that the voice of the poet is bound by a ‘tyrant spell’ which prevents them from moving. Kõrvits was immediately enchanted by this text: ‘It has a power and courage inside it. It does not leave you neutral.’ Originally written for male choir, Kõrvits later rearranged the work for mixed voices. Finding the text ‘dark, but somehow bluesy’, Kõrvits uses a mezzo-soprano singing ‘with a folk or even blues style’ as the narrator. Many colourful effects are employed in the choral parts around this narrative and the ‘tyrant spell’ constantly pulls the music back to the rather sinister harmonies based around C minor heard at the beginning.
In the early hours of 28 September 1994 the Baltic ferry Estonia sank in the cold Baltic Sea. Nearly one thousand souls perished in Europe’s worst maritime disaster since the Second World War. Arturs Maskats composed his Lacrimosa the following year in memory of those lost in this disaster. Maskats studied at the Latvian Academy of Music, graduating in 1982. He spent the following sixteen years as music director of the Daile Theatre in Riga, composing music for over ninety theatrical productions throughout Latvia, before becoming artistic director of the Latvian National Opera. He is an avowed admirer of Latvia’s best-known composer Peteris Vasks, but has also clearly absorbed much from late Romanticism. Both of these elements are present in Lacrimosa, which moves between a number of emotional extremes over the course of seven minutes. The lyrical vocal writing is often set against a turbulent backdrop of string writing, with the organ also a strong presence. A fugal middle section, with its mechanical driven bass line, reaches an intense crescendo before the voices plaintively answer ‘Domine, Dona eis requiem’ (‘Lord, grant them rest’). Maskats finishes the piece with a profound sense of reconciled peace and, in the final chord, it is as if the depths of the ocean reach into the heavens with the final unresolved high violin tremolo hanging in the air.
Peteris Plakidis is an almost exact contemporary of Peteris Vasks and both composers share a strong affinity with the meditative power of nature and the distinct character of Latvian folk music. Like Maskats, Plakidis also studied at the Latvian Academy of Music and went on to work in musical theatre. Since 1974 he has been a professor of composition at the Latvian Academy of Music. His choral music, which includes many arrangements of traditional folk songs, embraces both dramatic expression and lyrical intimacy. In memoriam (1990) is a free composition and yet the melodic writing is imbued with the spirit of Latvian folk music. Plakidis begins with the pulse of a single repeated note set against rising arpeggiated figures painting the words ‘All that is good flies heavenwards’. The lower voices enter in the manner of a chorale over which the sopranos continue their ethereal interplay. The haunting characteristic of this piece comes from the tonality of the soprano lines: F major with D flat and E flat. This mode allows the harmony of the lower voices to shift repeatedly between the darkness of B flat minor to a very satisfying F major. The poet Bronislava Martuzveva was a true Latvian patriot—having been active in the Resistance movement she spent some time imprisoned in Siberia. Plakidis’ music is an ideal match to this heartfelt poetry as is particularly apparent in the final lines (‘Soil of the homeland hums and cracks’). For this recording an English version of the text by Lilija Zobens has been used.
Fatamorgana is an earlier work (1980) and is real musical fantasy. In the first movement, two folk-like melodies vie for attention. The basses represent the relentless heat of the desert while the more wistful lines of the altos reminisce and hallucinate. All the while the dreamy atmosphere is enhanced by the nonchalant commentary floating above in the soprano part. In the second movement the melody of the soprano solo is picked up and echoed by the other voices to the words ‘The sun runs around it’. The last few notes of this movement are thrown around the three soprano parts as again Plakidis creates a texture with free-floating soprano lines offsetting a chorale-like song in the lower voices. If there is something fairytale-like about the text then this could certainly be said of the musical setting. The magical ending to the lines ‘while a glassy-winged dragonfly will make for you a gentle cooling breeze’ has three sopranos singing the same melodic pattern in different rhythms. Plakidis is adept at creating sounds that appear free and improvised and yet are notated with economic ease.
This recording finishes with a choral miniature from Arturs Maskats, Lugums naktij (‘Prayer to the night’). The poem by Juris Helds is hard to translate—like so much Latvian poetry it speaks very freely of natural images. Much of the colour of the text also comes from the shape and character of the Latvian language, especially in the use of the recurring word ‘nakts’ (‘night’). This is an early work dating from the composer’s time as a student.
Rupert Gough © 2013