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Unique Voices That Cried to Be Heard

With melancholy and minimalist sensibilities, Baltic composers have emerged from the Soviet era.

May 14, 2000|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

In the 1980s and into the 1990s, a distinctly mystical music emanating from Eastern Europe began pervading the West. Geography didn't seem to matter. Whether it was Russians Alfred Schnittke and Sophia Gubaidulina, Estonian Arvo Part, Pole Henryk Gorecki or Georgian Giya Kancheli, they all seemed to share the same spirit of spiritual minimalism. They all seemed to have the same Slavic soul, to suffer the same revulsion toward official Soviet art and to exhibit the same reaction against complex, atonal Western music.

But geography does matter. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, we have become more aware of the individual identity of the Baltic republics. Gidon Kremer, for instance, is no longer called a Russian violinist but a Latvian, and it is obvious how different Latvia is from the Republic of Georgia, thousands of miles away on the Black Sea. And we are also beginning to understand that at least some of this music has its roots in a native soil.

Still the Baltic countries do share a sensibility. For instance, we have Kremer to thank for being the first to promote his Estonian neighbor, Part, in the West, and by now, "Fratres," which Kremer widely played in the '80s, is standard repertory.

Anne-Sophie Mutter included it in her recent local recital, and Gil Shaham has recorded it on an all-Part CD. Shaham's performance is as thick-toned and sweet as whipped cream, but its gorgeousness is at least not as inappropriate for this devotional music as was Mutter's flamboyantly show-business approach. More interesting, however, is the CD's inclusion of Part's gloriously ringing Third Symphony conducted by his countryman Neeme Jarvi.

Part's vocal music is his most characteristic. His reverential settings of biblical texts, with their pure tones and open chords, embody the very spirit of the Russian Orthodox Church. No one sings this music with more unaffected sincerity than performers under Paul Hillier's direction, and his latest Part recording, "I Am the True Vine," is a stunner, bringing together short new pieces (some in English for the first time) and a reworking of "Berlin Mass" for voices and organ.

The Tavener Choir, under Andrew Parrott, sounds more precious in its performances of Part's Magnificat and Seven Magnificat Antiphons. The recording "Out of the Night" mixes these with an effective version of "Fratres" played by three period-instrument cellos, and a selection of pieces by British mystical minimalist John Tavener. The two composers are often mentioned together, but they don't fully click, Tavener having a much glitzier sound.

Those early Kremer recordings of Part that so stunned the world in the early '80s (and have never been surpassed) were brought out by ECM, and the innovative German label continues to explore the region, usually getting there before anyone else. Its latest recording of Part, "Alina," is a concept album that offers two interpretations of the small occasional piano piece "Fur Alina" and three of the small occasional violin (or cello) and piano pieces, "Spiegel im Spiegel." This is Part reduced to his essence, happy to slowly proceed note by ringing note. ECM's recording is the ultimate tribute to unadorned minimalism, in effect, washing away the Mutters and Shahams.

With ECM's new recordings of music by other Estonian composers--Veljo Tormis (who was born in 1930 and is five years older than Part) and the much younger Erkki-Sven Tuur (born in 1959)--we get a fuller picture of the country's style.

Tormis' pieces are for chorus, unaccompanied except by the occasional drum or piano, and they are probably unlike anything you have ever heard. These are songs of the earth and the sea, shamanistic songs to nature and to the horrors of machinery and war, love songs and songs of lost childhood. They are raw, and they are chanted in so striking a language that it doesn't sound like language at all but elemental utterances of the body and soul. It only takes a couple of seconds of this fantastic recording to become utterly hooked and haunted by it.

If Tormis paints a specific sound-portrait of a people and Part distills that national character into individual sounds, Tuur attempts to connect Estonia with the West. His Estonian-ness is nevertheless evident in the intense and powerful utterances of his two-movement Third Symphony ("Flux") and his Cello Concerto, even if he also throws in a component of self-conscious intellectual complexity (the symphony's movements are titled "Contextus I and II"). Like all the Baltic composers, Tuur has a bent for glassy, eerie, ear-catching sound, though he does not yet have the distinctive voice of his predecessors.

Next door, in Latvia, the leading composer is Peteris Vasks, and he can be a disturbingly dour composer whose music in the '80s bemoaned the many tragedies of the Latvian people. But Latvian independence has agreed with him. Not that he has lightened up completely, but glimpses of the sun have entered his music.

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