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Mihkel KEREM (b.1981)
Symphony no.3 'For the Victims of Communism' (2003) [26:48]
Lamento, for solo viola and strings (2008/2009) [8:54]
String Sextet (2004) [29:33]
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Mikk Murdvee
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Mikk Murdvee (viola) (Lamento)
Tallinn Ensemble (Sextet)
rec. Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, 11-12 January 2012 (Symphony); 29 February 2012 (Lamento); Fraternity Hall, House of Blackheads, Tallinn, 2 March 2012 (Sextet). DDD.

Mihkel Kerem is an Estonian violinist and composer, and in the latter capacity he made his debut on a Toccata recording released early last year, a collection of his marvellously mature early violin sonatas (TOCC 0140, review). This equally excellent follow-up gives music lovers the opportunity to hear Kerem's skill and imagination applied on the symphonic scale, as well as in a pair of larger-scale chamber works, all in premiere recordings.
Kerem's symphony title is naively provocative, to put it mildly, a controversy added to by the cover photo depicting concentration camp inmates. For Kerem this work attempts "to remind people of the dangers of autocracy and its ideologies", particularly with regard to "the dangerous downside of selective amnesia" over "what went on in the Soviet Union". Yet surely the only victims of communism are ideological ones, those in thrall to its doctrines and dogmas? Communism is a political idea; it takes an organisation or state to start incarcerating, torturing and killing. Kerem also clearly conflates soviet communism and autocracy - Putin's capitalist Russia is in many ways as autocratic as it was post Stalin.
At any rate, the music is provocative too, in the sense that it pushes the tonally attuned listener into uncomfortable places at times, whilst the relentlessly repeated motif towards the end of the first movement veers towards film-score minimalism. Yet this is all part of the attraction of Kerem's music - a highly expressive blend of two parts traditional tonality, one part modernism and one part postmodernism, sounding in the symphony not unlike Shostakovich in ironic mode, though sometimes reminiscent of a contemporary version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In his notes, in fact, Kerem admits to adapting Shostakovich's style as the only way to get into the writing of the work.
Whatever it sounds like, though, it is an outstanding work, sure to leave the listener wondering if Toccata have any plans for Kerem's first two symphonies. The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, though little known outside eastern Europe, can boast a fifty-year association with Neeme Järvi and a sizeable discography championing many regional composers. Under Mikk Murdvee's direction the listener finds them here in compelling form.
The remaining items are for smaller forces and strings only. Lamento certainly lives up to its title, a mournful, desolate work darkening the atmosphere still further after the symphony. The viola (in the original scoring a cello) represents "a lone human voice in a world of disappointment", though it is easy to imagine the piece as another threnody for the war dead. Murdvee is back again to conduct, but also as soloist. He went to school with Kerem, and a lasting friendship has seen him give the premiere as dedicatee of many of Kerem's works, including the more recent violin sonata no.3 and the sonata for solo violin. Needless to say, Murdvee was soloist on TOCC 0140. He is also a fine violist, as evidenced by his searing performance of the Lamento.
The string sextet offers some respite from the gloominess, originating in Kerem's mind as a kind of 'prequel' to Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, imagining the woman in question in a state of emotional turmoil the night before she takes the moonlit walk to confess her pregnancy. Appropriating some of Schoenberg's material as the work does, the listener must accept numerous pages of extreme chromaticism, although the ending is firmly in the key of D major, expressive of sunrise and sweet sleep at last. The Tallinn Ensemble - including Murdvee now on violin! - have the technique and endurance for a persuasive reading of this imposing addition to the string sextet repertoire.
Sound quality is very good throughout. The accompanying booklet is rather slim, but Kerem's own notes are informative. In short, this is another hugely impressive entry in Toccata's continuing series devoted to 20th and 21st century Baltic music, hitherto undeservedly neglected. Other revelations include Peteris Plakidis (review), Vytautas Bacevicius (review, review), Ester Mägi (review), Veljo Tormis (review) and Heino Eller (review).
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