Tormis: Choral Music (CD Review - Classics, 2008)

It's hard to imagine a composer "retiring" (as good an idea as it might be for some we can think of), but that's just what the Estonian Veljo Tormis did in 2000 at age 70. And the more of his music we hear--and thankfully, that's getting easier to do these days--the more sorry we are that he's not continuing to write new works. For choral fans this disc is a treasure, and I'd be surprised if it doesn't become an oft-played favorite. The reason: the music is invariably tuneful, harmonically inventive, and tonal, the rhythms primordial and born of both text and culture, all accomplished with an assured command of choral writing, of how to make music of the most compelling kind with nothing but voices.

Tormis' well-known "evangelism" for his homeland's folksongs is vividly on display in many of the works featured here (the program also contains several "original", pre-folksong-period pieces); but as we have heard before (type Q4756 and Q8046 in Search Reviews), the composer is far from an "arranger" of these tunes. He creates entirely new entities out of them while still preserving the original song, the inflection and meaning of its language, and what I can only describe as its cultural ambience. You hear the music and you can tell where you are--and in some cases, what the song is about--without knowing the language itself.

Evocative is another apt description of Tormis' choral music, especially in his settings of Estonian "game songs", or "The Wave Rolls", the several lullabies, and in the striking sounds of the "Herding calls". Many of these works demonstrate Tormis' very clever use of ostinatos and other repetitive devices--for instance the hypnotic effect in the lullaby "Wee winkie mouse" or the scurrying then rolling rush of clouds in "Clouds are racing" and the lilting, dancing "Daughters of the Meadow Matron" as they "go swaying merrily and playing...on blades of bent grass." Tormis also uses harmony to create special moods, as in the jazz-influenced "Pale light" and "The finger-binding game".

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