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Toivo TULEV (b. 1958)
Suvine Vihm (‘Summer Rain’) (2006) [7:14]
Legatissimo (2011) [10:15]
Tanto gentile (2010) [10:24]
I said, Who are You? – He said, You (2007) [10:48]
Flow, my tears (2007) [8:34]
Magnificat (2013) [13:24]
Ka Bo Chan (countertenor); Virgo Veldi (alto saxophone); Age Juurikas (positive organ); Ieva Ezeriete, Inga Martinsone (sopranos); Heigo Rosin, Vambola Krigul (percussion)
Latvian Radio Choir
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Kaspars Putniņš
rec. 2013, St. Gertrude Old Church, Riga, Latvia; Tallinn Methodist Church, Estonia
NAXOS 8.573735 [61:18]

The opening piece in this collection of music by the Estonian composer Toivo Tulev is also the earliest of the six. Its title, Summer Rain, might lead us to expect something warm, perhaps pictorial, and this is what we get. The music is largely tonal but with a fair amount of dissonance within a tonal framework. Skilful part writing, long held notes and richly scored chords take advantage of and magically enhance the resonant acoustic of the recording space. The Latvian Radio Choir is one of the most beautiful in the world in terms of sheer sound, and this work provides them with the perfect vehicle to show off their talents. When you read the text, however, you are surprised to find that this particular rain pours down onto a human population as full of misery, wrongdoing and sin as that which inhabits Handel’s chorus ‘Surely, he hath borne our griefs’. Words and the music seem strangely at odds, then. Is this what booklet annotator Eugene Birman means when he writes that the work is ‘as enigmatic as any of the composer’s works’?

A more challenging listen is Flow, my tears. The text combines words from Dowland’s eponymous song and from a Holy Week text: Christ’s blood flows as well as tears. The bitter flavour of the music seems more in tune with the Passion story than with Dowland’s melancholy, and if there is anything of Dowland in the music itself I am unable to hear it. The music is slow moving with no sense of pulse. The singers are required to find highly complex chords out of thin air, which they do with remarkable accuracy and conviction.

I said, Who are You? – He said, You is a work of considerable intensity. The text presents just a few words from T S Eliot’s Four Quartets and a phrase from a Sufi mystic, Mansur Al-Hallaj, translated in the booklet as ‘I am Truth’. Countertenor Ka Bo Chan repeats these words to the accompaniment of powerful string writing. An alto sax, played by Virgo Veldi, contributes to the atmosphere of penetrating contemplation. In truth, however, the philosophical idea behind the piece, at least as communicated by the words, feels unexplored, so that the singer sometimes gives the impression of getting excited over nothing. Better to listen, forget the words, and luxuriate in the gorgeous yet slightly troubling textures.

Tanto gentile was composed for the Latvian Radio Choir following that ensemble’s intense period of training in microtonal and overtone techniques. The listener might struggle to perceive the overtone singing, but the microtonal techniques – singing intervals smaller than a semitone – are clearly discernible in harmonies that sound ‘out of tune’ but which are plainly intended as such. Setting a fourteenth century Italian text, the work is a portrait of a woman whose beauty is so striking that passers-by fall silent. The work is another essay in rich, slow-moving sonorities. Those microtonal dissonances resolve frequently onto conventionally tuned chords, a most striking effect. Some will find the composer’s treatment of the final word, ‘sospira’ – a sigh – magical and moving. Others might find it predictable.

Legatissimo, a percussion work, is performed here, with the utmost virtuosity, by Heigo Rosin. It begins with a deafening crash and subsides into near silence at the end. In between occurs a wide range of pitched and non-pitched sounds, with a fair amount of marimba. As a non-percussionist, I find many sounds difficult to identify. Including the work in a programme of choral music is, according to Eugene Birman, ‘at first, inexplicable and, at last, fundamental, if not sensible.’

Magnificat begins with a similar, cymbal-dominated untuned percussion explosion and proceeds in searing fashion. This is not how most composers have chosen to convey the Virgin’s barely containable expression of bliss. There are gentler passages with many beguiling sounds, and the music draws you in and keeps you there throughout. The text is largely inaudible, and a recording where the vocal parts are slightly recessed compared to the instruments reflects, perhaps, the composer’s aims.

Tulef’s music, writes Eugene Birman in the booklet, ‘can be experienced on a purely emotional, almost sensual level.’ This is absolutely true, and indeed the word ‘almost’ is unnecessary in this context. (Nor do I see any reason to qualify this statement by adding the words ‘unlike many of his contemporaries’.) Legatissimo does nothing for me, but the rest of the collection has challenged, intrigued and moved this particular listener. Treat the insert note with caution, however. It reveals little, and, crucially, its pseudo-philosophical arguments run the risk of alienating the reader and drawing attention away from the music. The paragraph that discusses where the composer has chosen to live is a particular case in point. No, better to take note of one of the rare sentences that are straightforward enough to allow one to agree. Tulef, he writes, is difficult to place in the contemporary music scene, but his music ‘deserves deeper exploration. Let Magnificat be the beginning of such a journey.’

William Hedley

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