Classical Review 

Classical Review

Classical Review

Raising the Iron Curtain

The breakup of the Soviet Union in recent years has brought more than political freedom to its constituent parts. If the hand of state weighed heavily on business and industry in the old Soviet system, the arts bloomed only under the threat of heavy pruning. Furthermore, only the approved blossoms, works by composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, were presented to the outside world. Others were left to wither on the vine, unseen and unheard. This was particularly true of the arts in the former Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Remarkably, the last decade of the 20th century has given listeners a chance to discover the fertility of the post-Soviet musical soil in these three countries—and to discover how fervently it is blossoming forth.

The seminal figure in modern Baltic music is Heino Eller. Even more than is the case with Sibelius and Finland, Eller is the fountainhead of contemporary Estonian music. His status as cultural icon derives both from the high quality of his compositions and from the high quality of his students. Moreover, during his incredibly long life—which spanned from 1887 to 1970—Eller taught every 20th-century Estonian composer of note, and he taught most of the teachers of the best musicians and composers in the other Baltic states.

Although Eller’s style has been compared to that of Scriabin, his music doesn’t quite have the fin de siècle decadence of Scriabin’s compositions. While his works have a sternness frequently associated with Sibelius, they also manage to impart the warmth of the midnight sun rather than the frostiness of the cold northland. A generous sampling of Eller’s approachable oeuvre, as well as works by some of his best students, can be found on Chandos’ two-disc set by the Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of the Estonian-born conductor Neeme Järvi. Eller’s tone poem “Dawn,” featured on the first disc, is particularly ravishing.

Eller’s earliest pupil of international standing was Eduard Tubin. The composer of 10 symphonies, an orchestral suite, and numerous songs, choral works, and ballet scores, Tubin is just now finding his niche in the repertoires of some of the world’s great orchestras. His music is especially popular in Sweden, to which he fled with his family in 1944, but recent performances of his symphonies by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have done much to make his name better known in this country. The general listener will probably find his earlier symphonies—all of which have been recorded for BIS by Järvi and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra—and the “Estonian Dance Suite” very accessible. Even so, his later and thornier works should not cause problems for fans of Shostakovich, Martinu, or Prokofiev.

Eller’s great pupil in his later years was Arvo Pärt, born in Paide, Estonia, in 1935. During the ’60s, Pärt studied under Eller at the Tallinn Conservatory while holding down a job as an engineer with Estonian Radio. His early serious works are primarily serialist compositions, but his larger reputation in the Soviet Union was as a commercial composer of some 50 film scores. In the mid-’70s, Pärt moved on to a style he came to call “tintinnabuli,” for which he is best known in the West. The style has its roots in plainsong and early polyphony and is strongly influenced by minimalist techniques. Pärt’s tintinnabuli scores are frequently described as modal because of his emphasis on melodies, based on a single triad, that impart a bell-like quality to the sound.

Pärt’s earliest Western successes in this style were the “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” written for strings and a single bell, and “Fratres,” which exists in several versions. Casual listeners have been drawn to Pärt’s music by the frequent use of these two pieces on such radio programs as Echoes and Music From the Hearts of Space, but his series of choral works (many of which have been recorded by ensembles under the direction of Paul Hillier) have assured his high standing among serious contemporary composers. Shorter choral works that will probably continue in the repertoire include the “De Profundis,” a gorgeous setting of the Beatitudes, and his “Stabat Mater,” but Passio is Pärt’s masterpiece. Utilizing all of the techniques that Pärt has built into his tintinnabuli style, it’s probably the most brilliant and emotionally draining setting of the Passion story since Bach.

Much of Pärt’s music is dark and brooding, but he also displays a brighter side. Among the choral works, “Magnificat” and the aforementioned “Beatitudes” would make splendid acquisitions for any music collection. EMI Classics makes both of these available on the same disc in fine performances by Stephen Cleobury conducting the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, while Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices include them on their recent De Profundis release for Harmonia Mundi. Among Pärt’s post-serial instrumental pieces, his work for strings “If Bach Were a Beekeeper” is a clever little scherzo that I’ve only encountered in a broadcast by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

If Pärt is currently the best-known composer from the Baltics, a crop of less frequently encountered but no less interesting music makers awaits discovery. They include Lithuanian composers Bronius Kutavicius and Mindaugas Urbaitis, the Estonian composer and rock musician Erkki-Sven Tüür, and Latvian Peteris Vasks. Most in this new generation of Baltic composers have received training at their respective national conservatories, where many of their teachers were taught by Heino Eller. Pieces by all of these composers are included in a series of recordings on Finlandia Records devoted to Baltic works for strings performed by Juha Kangas and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra; among them, the standout is “Cantabile,” a work by Peteris Vasks.

Vasks is probably the next Baltic composer whose works will become internationally known. His String Quartet No. 3 from 1995 is currently being taken on tour by the Kronos Quartet, and his “Musica dolorosa,” a work written in memory of his sister, is receiving uniformly good press in its performances by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Conifer Classics is undertaking a substantial commitment to provide first-class recordings of his work.

Vasks was born in 1946 in Aizpute, Latvia, the son of a Baptist pastor. His musical training began in high school, continued with composition training by an Eller pupil, and concluded in Lithuania, where he studied both composition and the double bass. While in Lithuania, Vasks came under the influence of the Polish avant-garde. The influence of Withold Lutoslawski in particular can be heard in Vasks’ penchant for beginning a piece in placid consonance, building to a more dissonant and densely structured climax, and releasing the tension through a brilliant catharsis.

Vasks has also stated that much of his music is indebted to vocal forms—“Cantabile” is surely one of those pieces—and to an interaction with nature. Among these “nature pieces” are his Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra from 1989 and the String Symphony from 1991. Vasks’ most typical work, however, is his Cello Concerto. Composed in 1993 and 1994 for the Lithuanian cellist David Geringas, the piece is a slowly building eruption for both cello and orchestra that sings of both nature and society. In the recording, for which Geringas served as the soloist, the luminous beauty of the cellist’s music is frequently juxtaposed with brutal elements for orchestra. This is not to say that the orchestra is always brutal, however; in both the opening and close, Vasks gives it many passages of Ravelian splendor. If he continues in this vein, he will be a treasure well into the next century.

That this new generation of Baltic composers tends toward tonality is not surprising. After the gray mid-century of serialism, music everywhere is moving in the direction of neo-tonalism. From the bright colors of Michael Torke and John Adams to the glow of John Tavener, today’s composers promise an excellent harvest of music in the 21st century. But while we’re picking tonal rosebuds, let’s not overlook the Baltic garden.

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