The Estonian composer Veljo Tormis (born in 1930) has carved a unique position for himself in contemporary music. By marrying the quasi-minimalist rhythmic vigour of Estonian runic singing – a tradition some 3,000 years old – with the extended techniques of modern choral writing, he has created a body of music tingling with excitement, energy and power. Many of the works on this CD – where the composer, playing shaman drum and anvil, joins one of Scandinavia’s brightest young choirs – draw on folk sources in a reaffirmation of Estonian identity; others evoke the forces of nature as a metaphor for political upheaval.
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"The quality of choral singing in the Baltic region is legendary, and with the 20 male voices of the Svanholm singers – most of them apparently students at Lund University – the legend lives on. Tormis writes that any of his doubts about the 2006 concert they organised in his honour melted with just a few phrases from his 'Double Dedication'. No wonder. Both music and performance of this celebration of two poets who emigrated from Soviet Estonia to Sweden immediately seize the attention, even without knowledge of the poems, the cultural role of the poets or the nature of the composer's tribute to them – all of which only serve to reinforce and deepen the initial impact.
So, which to single out? The phenomenal precision of intonation, tonal focus and communicative urgency in the singing, the high-mindedness and vividness of the poetry, or the music's sheer range of appeal and refusal to recognise boundaries between different kinds of audience? There are rich pickings here, the programme covering a gamut of expression from folk-comic-macho through saga-epic to wondrous-romantic. Tormis himself gives the disc a symbolic imprimatur by playing the shaman drum in 'An Aboriginal Song' and 'Curse upon Iron'. Whistling, sighing, tongue-clicking, falsetto and log drumming add to the tonal palette but the music and singing are seductive enough even without them. Documentation is exemplary, recording quality perfectly judged. Irresistible! Hard on its heels comes another beautifully prepared and executed compilation. Stephen Layton and his Holst Singers have a well deserved reputation as bold explorers, and their intelligence and dedication are evident here. It seems that the language barrier has not proved greatly inhibiting: they've thrown down the gauntlet to others outside the Baltic region to investigate this superb repertoire. By comparison with the crack Nordic teams, the English voices are admittedly a degree softerfocused in tone and not quite so high-pressure in expression. The composer's compatriots bring even more electricity to the five marvellous songs that make up Livonian Heritage, for example, though the Holst Singers find a subtlety and affection that certainly compensates. In any case, given that there is little very duplication of repertoire with available CDs (and none at all with the superb Svanholmers), and that the quality of Tormis's output is wonderfully consistent, there is really no reason not to invest in both new issues."
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An Aboriginal Song Veljo Tormis (shaman drum)
Curse Upon Iron Emil Johannisson (tenor), Veljo Tormis (shaman drum), Erik Emilsson (bass)
Kaksikpuhendus (Double Dedication)
Sampo cuditur (Forging the Sampo) Veljo Tormis (anvil)
Incantatio maris aestuosi (Incantation for a Stormy Sea
Men's Songs, Vol 1
Kord me tuleme tagasi (Once We Will Reappear) - Our Shadows
Piispa ja pakana (The Bishop and the Pagan) Stefan Engstrom (counter-tenor), Staffan Lindberg (tenor), Emil Johannisson (tenor)