Thursday 18 October 2018

Untold riches - music from Estonia & the Baltic at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Miina Härma
Miina Härma
From Tallin to St Petersburg, Solitudes; Kai Rüütel, Roger Vignoles, Mr McFall's Chamber; Oxford Lieder Festival at the Holywell Music Room
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 October 2018
Star rating: 4.5

Estonia and the Baltic was the theme for a pair of concerts which revealed little-known riches

This year's Oxford Lieder Festival is celebrating the Grand Tour, and as well as the major stops in European music we have some less well known musical cultures. As part of my day at the festival on Thursday 17 October 2018, I caught their visit to the Baltic. The evening recital was given by the Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel and pianist Roger Vignoles; From Tallin to St Petersburg gave us a flavour of the various influences in Estonian music with songs by Estonian composers from the 19th and 20th centuries, Russians Sergei Rachmaninov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the German Johannes Brahms (who was from the Hanseatic port of Hamburg). The rush hour concert was given by the Scottish group Mr McFall's Chamber who presented a programme of Baltic instrumental music, with works from Estonia, Latvia and Finland, including some Finnish tango! And to give us a flavour of the Estonian language being sung in the evening, the day started with a useful Estonian language lab, where Kerli Liksor introduced us to the basics of the Estonian language.

For the evening concert at Holywell Music Room, Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles' programme From Tallinn to St Petersburg brought out the different foreign links to Estonian music. Though a Russian colony in the 19th century, Estonia had a long tradition of being locally governed by a German merchant class thanks to the Hanseatic links. So whilst 19th century composers went to study in St Petersburg, the peasants also adopted German habits which is where how the Estonian tradition of communal song developed.

Ester Mägi
Ester Mägi
Rüütel had clearly put a lot of thought into the programme, not only did she sing the entire thing from memory but she had contributed English translations to many of the Estonian songs. Luckily the programme was being recorded by the BBC for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at some future date.

We started with a song by Miina Härma (1864-1941), I cannot stay silent. Härma studied at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, and is still revered in Estonia as a choral composer and conductor and in fact I cannot stay silent (written in 1896) is often sung by choirs. An elegiac, folk-like piece, Rüütel sang it unaccompanied.

The Brahms group followed, four songs from his Fünf Lieder, op.105 written between 1885 and 1886. Wie Melodien though nicely flowing was perhaps a little too sober and serious, but it did give us a fine flavour of Rüütel's rich-toned mezzo-soprano. She relaxed more into Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer which was beautifully shaped with a sense of a still, quiet centre, and a moment of vibrant drama towards the end. Klage was lighter and more characterful, though still with a serious demeanour. Auf dem Kirchhofe started with Roger Vignoles' dramatic piano, and the vocal line had the feeling of dramatic recitative, again very focused, serious and intent.

A group of songs by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) followed. In the silence of the forest was full of melancholy longing, with its evocatively chromatic piano and richly romantic vocal line, sung by Rüütel with lots of vibrant yet focused tone. The Soldier's Wife was still melancholy, yet a little folk-inspired with a haunting melismatic passage at the end. How fair is this spot flowed beautifully, moving from a sense of longing to a radiant end.

Mart Saar
Mart Saar
Ester Mägi (born 1992) is evidently a sprightly 96 and regarded as the first lady of Estonian music. She studied with Mart Saar (who had studied with Rimsky Korsakov) in Tallinn and then with Vissaron Shebalin at Moscow Conservatory. In Three songs on poems by Betti Alver from 1981 she sets the lyric poetry of Betti Alver (1906-1989), slightly elliptical folk-inspired poems which tell stories yet tantalise and intrigue. The sun was shining, the dew gleamed used folk-like musical material but shaped to the drama of the text, with Mägi complementing the folk-ish melodic lines with complex harmonies to very striking effect. When music echoes was very dramatic with the piano almost providing interruptions to the vocal line. It was a very intense piece, and clearly tailored to the shape of the Estonian language in the text. In fact, this sense of the primacy of the language was something which struck me about a number of the pieces in the programme. The final song On the window of sleep combined a rather folk-inspired melody with quite a busy piano. In all the songs, Kai Rüütel was most persuasive, clearly at home in the musical style and conveying much with a simple musical gesture and a look.

Veljo Tormis (1930-2017) also studied at Tallinn Conservatoire and at the Moscow Conservatory with Vissaron Shebalin. He is best known for his choral music, and his song cycle Sorrowful Moments dates from 1958 and sets four poems by Minni Nurme (1917-1994). The four songs didn't so much tell a story as each evoked a particular mood. The first three songs, Spring sun do not set yetAutumn Song and No roses have bloomed for me each combined a flexible, fluid vocal line which followed the shape of the text, with a busier, more complex piano part. These were songs which prized not only the Estonian language, but the folk-influenced ways of setting Estonian text. The lovely final song Armastus (Love) had more of a sense of formal melody.

After the interval we returned to Russia for a group of songs by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). The Nightingale with its exotic is quite well-known but many of the others seem to be unduly neglected. On Georgia's Hills continued the vein of melancholy with the piano seeming to comment on the drama, whilst Serenade started with a delightful piano introduction, before the voice's quasi narration with piano twinkling round it. The Wave Breaks was a big dramatic piece matching the texts description of the waves in the sea, and finally When the ripening wheat fields gently stir combined a richly complex piano texture with a lyric narration from Rüütel.

Veljo Tormis
Veljo Tormis
This form of construction with a lyrical, folk-inspired vocal line combined with complex piano, re-occurred in the songs by Rimsky-Korsakov's pupil the Estonian composer Mart Saar (1882-1963). Saar wrote over 180 songs, making him Estonia's most prolific song composer; Rüütel and Vignoles performed six of them, all dating originally from around 1905/1906.

In days of yore was more clearly a folk-ish, closed-form melody but Saar's treatment was quite romantic with a richly texture piano part. The straw murmurs was a flowing, long-breathed melody setting a description of Autumn in a way which emphasised the Estonian text. Lost Angel was dramatic and more demonstrative, again with a complex piano part. Autumn thoughts moved a long way from folk-song, it was a quietly dramatic and intense piece which conveyed a strong feeling of anxious anticipation. What was it? was more straightforward, though beautifully constructed with a powerfully affirmative end. Finally we had the lyric melancholy of Only once more, again with striking piano accompaniment.

This was a fascinating and illuminating programme, at the end of a striking day of Estonian and Baltic music. Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles recital in particular gave us an idea of the song riches which are lying, relatively undiscovered, in Estonia.

Earlier on in the day, at the rush-hour concert in the Holywell Music Room, Mr McFall's Chamber's programme Solitudes was based on their 2015 disc of the same name [see my review], which chimed in with the day's theme of Estonia and the Baltic. The ensemble consisted of Cyril Garac and Robert McFall (violins), Brian Schiele (viola), Su-a Lee (cello), Rick Standley (double bass) and Maria Martinova (piano). They began with Introduction and Tango Overture by Aulis Sallinen (born 1935) written in 1997, which introduced us to Finnish tango, but first there was the sober and rather densely texture Introduction, though eventually the piano started subverting it with tango motifs and the second half erupted into tango with terrific energy.

Fur Alina by Arvo Pärt (born 1935), for solo piano, dates from 1976 and is one of his earliest pieces in his tintinnabuli style. Spare, short and intense, the individual notes were left to resonate (with the sustaining pedal on), each hanging in mid-air. Completely magical.

Toivo Kärki
Toivo Kärki
Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür (born 1959) trained classically at Tallinn Conservatory but also played in a prog rock band, and the two very different genres infuse his music. Dedication for cello and piano was written in 1990. Starting with dramatic gestures from cello and from piano (with the pianist Maria Martinova playing inside the piano) the piece alternated these gestures with more lyrically romantic material, sometimes getting rather rhythmic. The result was rather striking and dramatic.

The Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen (born 1967) is also a composer, ploughing his own rather distinctive furrow. His Toccata from 1989 is written for piano, string quartet and double bass. It rather fascinatingly combines passages which seem inspired by Sibelius with passages which re-work material from Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, often giving this latter material a rather dark and intense feel. The result was undoubtedly rather dramatic, particularly the ending and though I found it rather strange and unsatisfying the audience was most enthusiastic.

A Little Summer Music is a 1985 piece by Latvian composer Pëteris Vasks (born 1946) written for violin (Cyril Garac) and piano (Maria Martinova). A series of short movements, each uses material that is rather folk-inspired and despite the differences in the melodic and harmonic styles, the treatment sometimes reminded me of Bartok's Romanian Dances. We started with a free rhapsodic movement, and then the music was by turns melancholy, lively, meditative and dramatic. One fascinating aspect of the work was that each movement ended up in the air and merged into the next.

Unto Mononen
Unto Mononen
The full ensemble returned to the platform for the final three items. First Täyikuu by the Finnish composer Toivo Kärki (1915-1992). Kärki was one of the best known Finnish tango composers and Täyikuu is one of his most popular. The tango came to Finland in the early part of the 20th century purely as a dance, it seems to have been the Second World War which crystalised Finnish tango as a very particular genre. This one was both melancholy and vibrant, despite some very crisp rhythms the tone was elegiac yet it put a smile on your face.

Einsames Lied is all that survives of a song written by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) for a stage play. The melody has been arranged for piano sextet to atmospheric effect. The final piece of the printed programme was another tango, this time by Unto Mononen (1930-1968). Satumaa, written in 1955 was a lovely combination of lyricism, rhythm and melancholy.

But there was one final item, a striking arrangement of the best known melody from Sibelius' Finlandia with cellist Su-a Lee playing the musical saw!

This was a fascinating programme, giving a series of glimpses of music from the Baltic countries which does not always travel abroad regularly. It was a packed programme, with substantial spoken introductions by Robert McFall, and perhaps it was slightly too long for the rush-hour slot.

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