12 February 2016

Toivo Tulev: Songs

This week  I wanted to chat about a wonderful work that I have been eager to talk about since I started this blog, but needed the right kind of time for it. The composer in question is Toivo Tulev (1958*) an Estonian composer whose music and personal evolution has fallen at one of the most potent times of Estonia's history.

Toivo Tulev is part of the generation composers just after giants like Arvo Part, and who was a part of the generation setting the stage for Estonia post-Soviet occupation. His music draws on many influences including hard rock, Gregorian chant, sonorism, and minimalism. This collection of influences is almost the epitome of Estonia since the 1990s, everyone freely drawing on everything that they can. The result has meant many profoundly strong composers have come out of the tiny Baltic nation.

The mood of Tulev's works owes a lot of the Arvo Part, I don't say this in the sense that he is a bland copy of Arvo Part, but more that Part opened the door for Tulev's music to really shine. The focus and meditative atmosphere is always beautiful be it in a piece for piano lasting 3 minutes or a half an hour long work for choirs, orchestra and soloists.

This brings me very nicely onto Songs (2005). Songs was commissioned by Paul Hillier while Toivo Tulev was composer in residence with the Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Choir. To quote Hillier's words in the CDs sleeve notes:
...I proposed that he write an extended new work for us, and ventured to suggest that it might be a polychoral piece with various groups of singers and instruments distributed around the concert venue... Paul Hillier

 So in short, the work is meditative collage of religious texts from a multitude of sources including Song of Songs, Cantico espiritual, and Coplas del alma que pena que por ver a Dios. The works are all connected by the sense of yearning; a spiritual longing to be closer to God. The setting of the text is in three languages English, Latin, and Spansh, which gives the sensation of constant reflection and revaluation of what has been said, forcing you to remain mindful.

The ensemble is laid out like so:

                                                           Coro Lontano

Orchestra I                                                 Soli                                  Orchestra II
Coro I                                                     Conductor                                   Coro II
                                                         Organo Lontano

This layout surrounds the audience and fills the space with this meditation. To add to the colour of the ensemble is the use of Duduk, an instrument native to Armenia which is renown for its mournful colour and beauty.

The work can be divided into 8 sections and in the recording produced by harmonia mundi is divided as such.

I - By Night - Starts with dark rustlings and building from the ensemble, before we hear the first quotation of the text 'By night on my bed I sought him Whom my soul loveth I sought him, but I found him not'. This movement focuses around the larger ensemble, with the text being sung by the choir. 

II - Where have you hidden, Beloved - The next section starts with repetitions on singular pitches oscillating around each other. It is very focused and very still and wonderfully hypnotic. 

III - This life that I live - Is the first section to feature a soloist. The beautiful flying lines from the soprano mystify and mesmerise. The lightness and nimble soprano in the recording really hits the point home, I am a bit in awe of it. The stillness of the orchestra holds the atmosphere allowing the soprano to ring like a beautiful siren.

IV - Nigra Sum - This movement starts very boldly and strong, full of colour and energy. The entrance of the Mezzo soprano soloist is still filled with rippling energy which holds her like the sea holds a ship.

V - Behold, thou art fair - Is the longest singular segment, and is lead by the tenor soloist. Despite sounding very still, the music is still full of yearning and a potency you feel may suddenly explode uncontrollably. The entrance of the choir is haunting and just emphasise the power of the tenor.

VI - I am come into my garden - This is my favourite movement, mostly because I find when a counter tenor is good it is profoundly beautiful. Robin Blaze really brings out the ephemeral nature of the text and music and just draws a listener in closer almost being absorbed by the text and the singing.

VII - Reveal, reveal your presence - This movement begins to build with energy the movement. Despite the long lines in the instruments and singers there is a sense of a building tempi and the the sparky soprano solo adds to the deeper potency of the movement. Allowing it to build and build.

VIII - Mira que la dolencia de amor - The final sees reiterations of older texts as well as the inclusion of the new Spanish text. Despite being a finale, it is by no means a release or a conclusion. There is a greater sense that the souls have gone unsatisfied and with an uneasy breath out the piece ends.

This powerful and potent work is just magical and I can spend days listening to it. The CD by harmoni mundi is definitely worth buying, not just for this singular piece, but also for the collection of other works by this wonderful composer.

Until next week!

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