Tuesday 17 October 2023

To the North... Estonian pianist Ivari Ilja creates a recital that is highly satisfying in itself, but with each work repaying further attention

To the North...: Tõnu Kõrvits, Peeter Vähi, Eduard Tubin, Ester Mägi, Eduard Oja; Ivari Ilja; Estonian Record Productions
To the North...: Tõnu Kõrvits, Peeter Vähi, Eduard Tubin, Ester Mägi, Eduard Oja; Ivari Ilja; Estonian Record Productions

Estonian piano music stretching across the 20th and 21st centuries in a recital that is highly satisfying in itself, but with each work repaying further attention.

Estonian pianist Ivari Ilja's new disc, To the North... on Estonia Record Productions (ERP) features piano music by two contemporary Estonian composer, Tõnu Kõrvits and Peeter Vähi, alongside music by Estonian composers from previous generations, Eduard Tubin, Ester Mägi and Eduard Oja, the disc includes the world premiere recordings of Kõrvits' The Riddle and To the North..., Mägi's Three Sea Tableaux and Vähi's Purgatory.

The music of Tõnu Kõrvits forms a frame for the recital, with his work occurring at the beginning, middle and end. Kõrvits' The Riddle was written for Ivari Ilja who premiered it in 2018. A tiny piece, it is all delicate, engaging counterpoint.

Peeter Vähi's background mixes rock, pop, classical and non-Western music.  His Purgatory was written to commemorate the Dante's 700th anniversary and is inspired by the second book, Purgatory. The work begins and ends with a free-recitative single piano line where the words are recited silently by the performer. The single line feels like a fugue subject, and Vähi's work subjects it to all manner of reworkings during the course of the nearly 20 minute piece. It is both a meditation on Dante and a compendium of moods and emotions, and feels closer to Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH than many other contemporary works. Vähi very much takes us on a journey, the music moving between violence and spareness, but always with the original material lurking behind. Until we reach our destination, and this is very much a case of 'in my end is in my beginning'.

Ilja follows this with another substantial work, the Ballade in the form of a chaconne on a theme by Mart Saar by Eduard Tubin. The melody, which comes from a choral work by Estonian composer Mart Saar (1882-1963), is Tubin (in exile in Sweden in the 1940s) paying homage to an older Estonian composer by creating a substantial chaconne on Saar's theme. Over a restless, dark LH melody, the gradual more powerful RH motif develops, it is changeable and full of vivid drama, again something of a compendium of moods.

Next comes Kõrvits' Three Pieces from 2014, three contrasting moods. The first, Harmonies, features clear textures and Messiaen-like harmonies, the second Mechanics is vivid, fast and dazzling, whilst the third Love Song from Dolores' Songbook (inevitably the name has a story attached, about an abandoned house), has rich harmonies, developing from slow lyricism to something more.

Mägi's Three Sea Tableaux date from 1961. Mägi was the grand old lady of Estonian music, dying at the age of 99 and long being the keeper of Estonian musical continuity having studied composition with Mart Saar. She also originally studied piano but had to give up due to illness. Three Sea Tableaux dates from 1961. The first, Allegro, is free-flowing, delicate complexity with wonderfully engaging hints of Debussy and Orientalisme. The second, Adagio con moto is focused around an insistent rhythm that belies the movement's marking and develops real drama. The final, Vivo, is fast and vivid with bitter-sweet harmonies and a sort of Spanish feel.

Eduard Oja (1905-1950) is relatively little known Estonian composer, the booklet describes him as living 'a brief life filled with creative fervour', and his teachers included Eduard Tubin. Silent Moods was probably composed in 1930 and remains one of Oja's best known piano works. Lento, con moto has a slow throbbing which includes a repeated rhythmic figure on an unvarying note. Lento assai is lyrical, with a rocking rhythm that is almost a habanera, whilst Andante is dark and compelling, yet lyrical.

Dating from around the same period, Oja's Suggestions feels rather more experimental. It is made up of five movements, Yearning, Lamentations, Melancholy, Death, The Shadows of Toonela (the original titles are evidently in French). Yearning has a yearning melody over throbbing accompaniment that intensifies and relaxes. Lamentations is all spiky, edgy drama and complex harmonies, whilst Melancholy combines quiet intensity with some remarkable harmonies. Unsurprisingly, Death is unsettling, full of expressionist harmonies with darkness to them. The Shadows of Toonela has a sense of free recitative about it, a folk idiom distorted.

The recital ends with the title track, Tõnu Kõrvits' To the North... intense, Messiaen-esque harmonies punctuating free rhapsodic gestures to create a work that is inspired Nordic nature. The piece was dedicated to Ivari Ilja who premiered it at the Northern Lights Festival in Estonia in 2018.

I was familiar with all but one of the composers on the disc, yet all the music was new to me. The way Ivari Ilja's recital manages to parse views of the Nordic landscape whilst exploring generations of Estonian music is pure magic in itself, and his choice of repertoire creates a recital that is highly satisfying in itself, but with each work repaying further attention.

Tõnu Kõrvits (born 1969) - The Riddle (2018) [1:52]
Peeter Vähi (born 1955) - Purgatory (2021) [18:56]
Eduard Tubin (1905-1982) - Ballade in the form of a chaconne on a theme by Mart Saar (1945) [10:23]
Tõnu Kõrvits - Three Pieces (2014) [5:57]
Ester Mägi (1922-2021) - Three Sea Tableaux (1961) [11:28]
Eduard Oja (1905-1950) - Silent Moods (1930) [4:29]
Eduard Oja - Suggestions (1929-1930) [9:44]
Tõnu Kõrvits - To the North... (2017) [5:42]
Ivari Ilja (piano)
Recorded in August 2022 in the Hall of Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre
ERP12922 1CD [68:33]

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