Baltic countries have had and still have a long tradition of choral singing which sometimes was used as a gesture of resistance during the many vicissitudes that these countries have had to go through. A number of Baltic musicians such as Kreek and Tormis, have spent considerable time, care and patience in collecting folk-songs and other folk material. This extraordinarily rich fund has proved inspirational to several generations of composers.
Tõnu Kõrvits whose Kreek's Notebook is by far the most substantial work in this release belongs to a younger generation. Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) who composed a number of choral works including many psalm settings and a large-scale Estonian Requiem (1927) that has been recorded but that I have still to hear also spent time and talent in collecting and editing folk hymn tunes. Kõrvits turned to Kreek's collected hymn tunes as the basis for his substantial setting for choir and strings, Kreek's Notebook first performed in 2007. This extremely beautiful piece of music not only pays a heartfelt tribute to Kreek but also explores the folk hymn tunes themselves that here the composer re-creates rather than simply arranges. Characteristics of these hymn tunes are exploited to the full in both the choral and orchestral writing, prominent among these the highly ornamented melodies. Moreover the composer happily varies his own settings, be it in the choice of voices or in the string accompaniment. For example, the first hymn tune is a beautifully lilting melody for women's voices underpinned by pizzicato strings. The second hymn is for male voices and strings whereas a couple of movements (the fifth and the seventh) add a part for a vocal soloist. The seventh hymn is unaccompanied. All but the final hymn are fairly short whereas the final hymn is conceived on a grander scale. I could probably go on pointing out the many felicities to be heard in this marvellous piece but the best thing I can do is to urge you to listen to it.
Kõrvits' shorter piece for unaccompanied chorus The night is darkening around me sets a very fine poem by Emily Brontë. Originally composed for male voices the composer arranged it for mixed chorus which is what is to be heard here. This is yet another example these Baltic composers' ability to create remarkable vocal textures through apparently simple means.
In the early hours of 28 September 1994 the Baltic ferry Estonia sank in the cold Baltic sea. Nearly one thousand people perished in Europe's worst maritime disaster since the Second World War. Anyone who has paid a visit to Tallinn and who has strolled along the old city walls will not have failed to come across the memorial to the victims of that catastrophe, a simple arch interrupted in its middle and carrying on its basement the names of all the victims, simple but quite poignant. In 1995 the Latvian composer Arturs Maskats composed his Lacrimosa in memory of those lost in that disaster. It is a compact, straightforward but strongly compelling setting of a few words from the Dies Irae for chorus, organ and strings. This, too, is a moving piece of music for all its apparent simplicity. Maskats is also the composer of the final item in this release, a setting written early in his career of a beautiful poem by Juris Helds - judging by the translation for my knowledge of Latvian is completely non-existent.
The third composer whose music is represented here may be somewhat better known, were it only because a CD entirely devoted to some of his orchestral works has been released by Toccata Classics a few years ago and has been reviewed here. Pēteris Plakidis, who is almost the Grand Old Man here since he was born in 1947, has composed in many genres but his output for voices is far from negligible. He, too, turned to a Latvian poet Broņislava Martuševa who had been active in the Resistance movement and spent some time in Siberia for his In memoriam composed in 1990. The poem set by Plakidis - incidentally in an English translation made for this recording - is strongly imbued with a deep sense of Nature, something that is reflected in Plakidis' almost folk-inflected setting. Fatamorgāna (“Mirage”) also sets texts by an early 20th century Latvian poet Jānis Rainis in the form of a short, contrasted triptych the music of which succeeds in “creating sounds that appear free and improvised and yet are notated with economic ease” (Rupert Gough), but these words could apply to all the pieces recorded here.
A couple of years ago I enthusiastically reviewed another disc of Baltic music (choral music by Rihards Dubra) by these same forces released on Hyperion CDA 67799. They also recorded a whole disc CD devoted to Miškinis' choral music (Hyperion CDA 67818) that I still have to hear.
The present release is yet another feather in everyone's cap thanks to immaculate performances captured in an excellent recording. I am sure that everyone will find much here to enjoy.
Previous reviews: John
Quinn ~~ Dan Morgan