TÕNU KÕRVITS. HYMNS TO THE NORDIC LIGHTS. Risto Joost. Ondine 2020
ONDINE 1349-2 (2020)
“Azure” for strings
“Hymns for Nordic Lights” (I-V)
“Silent Songs” for bass clarinet and orchestra
2. Sacred River
3. Farewell Farewell
MEELIS VIND bass clarinet
“Leaving Capri” for strings
“Elegies of Thule” for strings
1. The Night is Darkening
2. Kellä’ (Bells)
3. I Look Up to the Hill
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Conductor RISTO JOOST
- WDR 3 TonArt. 20.02.2020
- Les lumières nordiques de Tõnu Kõrvits. (
- Recording of the Month (Dominy Clements, Musicweb International, 3/2020)
- Review (Ivan Moody, Gramophone, 4/2020)
- Recordings of the Year (Dominy Clements, Musicweb International)
Tõnu Kõrvits’ Songs for the Orchestra
(text by Kristel Pappel in the CD booklet)
When musing about the orchestral music of Tõnu Kõrvits (born 1969), the first thing that springs to mind is its songlike nature – the orchestra is primarily a melodic instrument for the composer. This may explain why his preferred medium is the string orchestra (“Azure”, “Leaving Capri”, “Elegies of Thule”). But also in his compositions for the symphony orchestra, it is the melody – whether hymnlike, passionately declamatory or ornamental – which is the soul of the piece.
Kõrvits is a marvellous expert on the orchestra and a master of instrumentation, able to tune into the character of each instrument and to translate this particularity into music. We can hear this in the many instrument solos in his works. His sound fantasies bring into being worlds with an extra special atmosphere, which may include references to Romanticism from Schubert to Mahler, impressionist reflections à la Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, not to mention the rational vigour of Stravinsky. These combine organically into Kõrvits’ own unique orchestral style. The composer has said that, in addition to the string orchestra, he finds the orchestral matrix from Beethoven’s era to offer the most flexibility for him.
Songs and the melodiousness of his orchestral music hint at the environment in which Kõrvits grew up – amongst pop- and rock music and the newest records acquired by his musician father Tõnis Kõrvits. Perhaps this is the reason why the composer likes compositions of the length of a rock song, whether as a separate piece or in a cyclical formation. Even the frequent appearance of the hymn genre in his works can be linked to rock music – namely, rock anthems. His tendency to use flageolet sounds calls to mind the typical vocal falsetto style of rock music. Blues is also among his favourite genres. Its melodic strateges, sequences of harmony and its yearning character have deeply impacted the composer’s works.
Yet it is not only blues and Beethoven, rock music and Ravel which have captivated Kõrvits – he has been equally interested in Estonian folk tunes, for example the religious folk songs of Estonian Swedes from the western part of the country and the Seto tunes from the southeastern part of the country, near the Russian border. Those areas are part of Estonia as the mystical Thule, if one were to expand the hypothesis of the Saaremaa island as Thule to encompass all of Estonia. Kõrvits has created several compositions on the Thule theme and one of them – “Elegies of Thule” – can be heard on this album.
Throughout the years, Kõrvits has created arrangements for many musical works by other composers and himself. He likes to pick up an older composition and to reimagine it for a fresh grouping. This practice, dating back to the Renaissance and the Baroque era – which is also typical in pop music – is dear to Kõrvits. In this way he has created “Azure“, “The Night is Darkening“ and “Tears-Fantasy”, which was inspired by the music of John Dowland.
This album includes a selection of orchestral pieces by Kõrvits from the period between 2007 and 2018. The journey through his orchestral music begins with “Azure“(2016/2017). This piece was originally created for male voices as a vocalise which completed the men’s choir cycle “Songs from Dolores’ Songbook”. The arrangement for string instruments gives the composition a special softness and translucency, which transforms into a painfully bright soundscape at the piece’s culmination. There is secrecy in this poetic work – perhaps the secrecy of sadness.
“Hymns to the Nordic Lights“(2011) was a commissioned composition for the new music festival NYYD. The premiere was given by the Britten Sinfonia and conducted by James MacMillan. The beginning of the cycle is somewhat unique for Kõrvits – it seems to kick off with the culmination, the entire orchestra playing an intensive hymn theme. The second part also begins with a dramatic gesture – signals by French horns and trumpets. The patterns of Nordic lights are reflected in the solo figurations of the piccolo flute and the clarinet in the third part as well as in the coldly emanating flageolet chains throughout the composition. The handling of the timpani is extremely delicate and diverse, ranging from a threatening tremolo in the distance to ecstatic cries. After the scherzo-like fourth part, the shimmering of the Northern Lights once again materialises in the last part as flageolets from flutes and string instruments, wind chimes and violin trills. The magnificent culmination lets the trumpets and French horns shine, backed by the entire orchestra, like the summit of a Scriabin-like ecstasy, conquering it all. In the end you are left with the memory of Nordic lights – and the chill.
“Silent Songs” (2015) for bass clarinet and the orchestra was written for the outstanding Estonian clarinetist Meelis Vind. The title brings forth associations with the famous Miles Davis’ record “In a Silent Way” (1969), and we can find in the composition by Kõrvits parallels due to its lyrical and meditative, improvisation-like part for the soloist. In the second part of the work, “Sacred River”, the composer uses an Estonian Swedish religious folk tune, but places it in an exotic environment – perhaps an Oriental milieu or the music of towns by Mississippi – which Kõrvits is really drawn to.
“Leaving Capri” (2018) is a barcarolle with an elegiac melody, a “homage to Konrad Mägi” as the composer has noted in the score. Konrad Mägi (1878–1925) was one of the most important Estonian painters of the early 20th century. From 1921–1922, he lived in Capri, calling it “a divine island”. Mägi, who yearned for southern sunny climes, died as a 47-year-old in Estonia without having the chance to return to Capri. The seeming simplicity of the composition hides a delicate instrumentation and a sense of lingering melancholy.
“Tears-Fantasy” (2011) is dedicated to conductor Risto Joost, with whom Kõrvits has a frequent and trusting collaboration. One of Kõrvits’ favourite composers, John Dowland, rewrote his pavane “Lachrimae” (1596) as a Lute song “Flow My Tears” and later also a version for the consort. In turn Kõrvits, inspired by Dowland, has composed an orchestral piece on its blueprint. It is worth mentioning that the lute is an instrument close to his heart – Kõrvits himself likes to play the guitar and the mandolin. Illuminated by Dowland, the orchestral piece by Kõrvits brings together the dancing character and the variation principle of the pavane and the mellow sound recalling the English Renaissance consort with the imitation of lute sounds. The composition is full of rhetorical sighing motifs and declining phrases reminiscent of falling teardrops.
This journey through the orchestral music of Tõnu Kõrvits concludes with the earliest work of this selection – “Elegies of Thule”, created in 2007. The musical material of the first part, “The Night is Darkening”, returns later in the third part of the mixed choir cycle “Moorland Elegies”. A Seto folk tune is used in the second part of the elegies, called “Kellä’”. This is a double evocation: the orchestra imitates the playing of an Estonian plucked string instrument called the kannel, which in turn imitates the sound of Orthodox Church bells. The cycle is completed by the religious folk tune “I Look up to the Hill“, which originates from the island of Saaremaa – the hypothetical “real” land of Thule.
The orchestral music of Kõrvits differs from the rest of his compositions mainly because of the opportunities which a string orchestra and a symphony orchestra offer. His lyrical and poetic strategies take hold of the listener just as in the other genres used by the composer. Kõrvits seeks to address the listener directly, their emotions and experiences, hopes and ideals. At the centre of Kõrvits’ work is the human figure with all his suffering and joy, in his relationship with nature, other people and the universe. Each one of such “songs” for the orchestra is carried by a romantic breath. The composer has said that for him romanticism is something beautiful and elevated: “Perhaps this sense of being elevated, putting romantic feelings on a pedestal and those feelings in themselves are very close to me. It reflects the secrets and sometimes the suffering of the human soul. And at the same time there is something very Nordic about it.” Yet always there is something which remains tantalisingly veiled and just out of reach, the untouched internal space – and that is also quintessentially Nordic.
Transl. by Ingrid Hübscher