Veljo Tormis: Vision of Kalevala

Estonian National Male Choir / Ants Soots

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Veljo Tormis: Vision of Kalevala Review

by Stephen Eddins

Veljo Tormis, one Estonia's most prominent composers, stopped composing after his 70th birthday in 2000, but over his career he created a massive body of work, the vast majority of it choral. His music draws heavily on Estonian and other Baltic folk traditions, and the pieces on this CD reflect that interest. The texts of all these choral pieces for men's voices are drawn from the Kalevela, the Finnish epic that has resonance in other Baltic countries beyond Finland. The largest piece here is a setting of the Seventeenth Canto of the Kalevala, which lasts over half an hour. Tormis breaks up the text with alternating sung and spoken texts and uses some folk instruments, so the piece sustains a high level of drama, but the limited range and repetitiveness of the modal folk and folk-like melodies make this a piece that can be heavy going on CD for listeners who are not already fans of the composer and acclimated to his unique, archaic soundworld. Devotees, though, are likely to be enthralled with the work's slowly accumulating momentum and intensity. For listeners new to Tormis' work, a better place to start would be with Curse upon iron, for men's voice's, soloists, and shaman drum. It's the composer most often performed work, and this performance makes it easy to see why. With this 10-minute piece, Tormis successfully transports the listener to a primordial time and place astonishing in its raw primitivism; it sounds like the enactment of a sinister, archaic, and very dark religious ritual, and its power is gripping. The singers are called on not only to sing, but to howl, shriek, and mutter, and the chorus produces a very convincing simulacrum of the drone of a didgeridoo. Expertly and energetically led by Ants Soots, the Estonian National Male Choir, for whom Tormis' works are at the core of their repertoire, sings with immense strength and when called on, with full, warm tone and a beautiful blend. Alba's sound is clear and spacious, with a nice resonance.

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