Tormis: Works for Men’s Voices
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Veljo Tormis: Works for Men’s Voices

Catalogue Number: TOCC0073
EAN: 5060113440730
Release Date: 20 August 2007
Duration: 67:49

An Aboriginal Song
Double Dedication
Our Shadows
Forging the Sampo
The Bishop and the Pagan
Incantation for a Stormy Sea
Men’s Songs
Curse upon Iron

Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor

The Estonian composer Veljo Tormis (born in 1930) has carved a unique position for himself in contemporary music. By marrying the quasi-minimalist rhythmic vigour of Estonian runic singing – a tradition some 3,000 years old – with the extended techniques of modern choral writing, he has created a body of music tingling with excitement, energy and power. Many of the works on this CD – where the composer, playing shaman drum and anvil, joins one of Scandinavia’s brightest young choirs – draw on folk sources in a reaffirmation of Estonian identity; others evoke the forces of nature as a metaphor for political upheaval.

Booklet texts   (PDF)

Track Listing, MP3 Downloads and Streaming Samples

Track No. Track Title / Details Duration Sample Add to Cart
1 An Aboriginal Song (1981)

Veljo Tormis, composer
Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor
2:31 play
2-3 Double Dedication (1983)

Veljo Tormis, composer
Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor
2 I. I’d Like to Sing a Song 1:50 play
3 II. Stars 2:35 play
4 Crosswind (1993)

Veljo Tormis, composer
Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor
4:13 play
5 Our Shadows (Once We Will Reappear) (1969)

Veljo Tormis, composer
Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor
4:39 play
6 Forging the Sampo (1997)
[Version for men’s voices]

Veljo Tormis, composer
Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor

(first recording)
7:52 play
7 The Bishop and the Pagan (1992)

Veljo Tormis, composer
Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor
10:05 play
8 Incantation for a Stormy Sea (1996)

Veljo Tormis, composer
Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor
7:52 play
9-14 From Men’s Songs (1964-65)

Veljo Tormis, composer
Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor
9 No. 1, ‘Men’s Song’ 1:57 play
10 No. 2, ‘Bundling Song’ 3:08 play
11 No. 3, ‘Betrothal Visit Song’ 3:32 play
12 No. 5, ‘Song of the Turkish War’ 1:17 play
13 No. 7, ‘Serf’s Song’ 3:24 play
14 No. 8, ‘Dancing Song’ 2:37 play
15 Curse upon Iron (1972)
[Version for men’s voices]

Veljo Tormis, composer
Svanholm Singers, choir
Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor

(first recording)
10:17 play


Veljo Tormis

Veljo Tormis, composer
[credit: Triinu Ojamaa]

Svanholm Singers

Svanholm Singers, choir
[credit: Zen Sato]

Sofia Söderberg Eberhard

Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, conductor
[credit: Zen Sato]


Rich pickings … Irresistible!

The quality of choral singing in the Baltic region is legendary, and with the 20 male voices of the Svanholm singers – most of them apparently students at Lund University – the legend lives on. Tormis writes that any of his doubts about the 2006 concert they organised in his honour melted with just a few phrases from his Double Dedication. No wonder. Both music and performance of this celebration of two poets who emigrated from Soviet Estonia to Sweden immediately seize the attention, even without knowledge of the poems, the cultural role of the poets or the nature of the composer’s tribute to them – all of which only serve to reinforce and deepen the initial impact.

So, which to single out? The phenomenal precision of intonation, tonal focus and communicative urgency in the singing, the high-mindedness and vividness of the poetry, or the music’s sheer range of appeal and refusal to recognise boundaries between different kinds of audience? There are rich pickings here, the programme covering a gamut of expression from folk-comic-macho through saga-epic to wondrous-romantic.

Tormis himself gives the disc a symbolic imprimatur by playing the shaman drum in An Aboriginal Song and Curse upon Iron. Whistling, sighing, tongue-clicking, falsetto and log drumming add to the tonal palette but the music and singing are seductive enough even without them. Documentation is exemplary, recording quality perfectly judged. Irresistible!

Gramophone 2010

Engaging and unique

[…] In these works for men's voices, the writing expects a virtuoso ensemble--there's no other way to achieve the necessary precision in rhythm and intonation, to sustain the energy to build the dramatic force to its full effectiveness, or to allow the harmonies (whether close or open) to resonate with either hair-raising power or warm sensuousness. The 20 singers of this Swedish choir yield to no one in virtuoso technique and musicianship, and their sound is lovely, youthful, and vibrant.

[…] From the opening work--a rousing chanting piece whose "text" is simply the word "Tabu!" (taboo)--you know this program is going to be both engaging and unique. And when the choir unleashes those stunning harmonic flourishes near the beginning of the second piece, "I'd like to sing a song", you know you won't be going anywhere for awhile. The excellent programming ensures variety and momentum from track to track while showing various aspects of Tormis' mastery of the medium. (The composer himself even plays drum and anvil on several tracks!) Concluding the disc is the premiere recording of Tormis' male-voice version of Curse upon Iron, one of his finest works--a brilliant anti-war statement drawn from the Kalevala, in which iron is condemned as the evil embodiment of weapons. First-rate sound and Tormis' personal notes on the music ensure the highest recommendation for this compelling, essential release.

David Vernier Classics Today 13th June 2008

Beautifully performed

… best known outside his country for the overwhelming power of his setting of one of the incantations from the Kalevala, the Curse upon Iron which first appeared in 1973 for mixed voices and is recorded here for the first time in its equally frightening version for male voices (which Tormis made in 2001), with the ominous ever present shaman drum played by the composer! It must be among the most fearful minimalist pieces ever written, full of revulsion against the iron ore that has contributed to so much of our human destruction …

… a fine retrospective of this major composer's choral output, all beautifully performed. I can only recommend this disc very highly.

Patric Standford Music & Vision 22nd May 2008

Razor sharp and precise

Veljo Tormis (b. 1930) is an Estonian composer. He studied choral conducting and organ at the Tallinn Music Institute, then organ and composition first at the Tallinn Conservatory, and then at the Moscow Conservatory, where he was a student of the noted composer and teacher, Vissarion Shebalin. From the start, he has been associated with choral music, winning first prize at the 1962 All-Union Young Composers' Competition for several works in the medium. The Soviet regime evi­dently liked Tormis, at least at that point in his career, awarding him a Merited Artist of the Estonian SSR honor in 1967.

It would be easy to lapse into admiration over the "folk primitiveness" of the composer's evolved musical style, what with its whisperings, its rhythmic incantations, its so-called shaman drum-and that's what I've heard from commentators the very few times I've heard this music fea­tured in radio broadcasts. Except, of course, that choral whisperings have been around for some time, now, the incantations owe much to Carl Orff, and the shaman drum is simply a drum, played by a non-shaman named Veljo Tormis. Make no mistake, this is imaginatively composed and highly communicative music, but in my opinion there is no need when discussing it for vague rhapsodies about primeval soundscapes.

If the works on this album are anything to judge by, Tormis in the 1960s was very much a dis­ciple of Kodaly, as witnessed here by Our Shadows (which could fit easily into the Hungarian's Mountain Nights series) and selections from Men's Songs. The other works, all from the 1980s and 1990s, are spare and, as mentioned above, redolent of Orff in their rhythmic syllabication, though Tormis is capable of adapting his non-lyrical manner to suit other needs of the moment. An exam­ple of this can be found in The Bishop and the Pagan (1992), where a modified Gregorian chant accompanies the part of the narrative that praises Saint Henry's missionary work and martyrdom, while Tormis deploys his basses in a more typically monotonal, rhythmic utterance to provide the contemporaneous Finnish point of view.

Aural drama is also characteristic of Tormis. He revels in depicting emotionally powerful situ­ations that suit his narrow but charged style. Double Dedication sets a pair of poems, a heroic protest and a sadly resigned one, both by Estonian exiles under Soviet occupation. Crosswind features another text by an exiled Estonian poet, this one a sad reflection on his land buffeted eternally by powerful winds that refuse it a separate destiny. Forging the Sampo recalls the epical creation of a magical device in Finnish myth that could produce whatever a person desires. Incantation for a Stormy Sea is self-explanatory. An opera, Luigelend, secured a first-class diploma for the compos­er, and the theater remains in his music.

Tormis cannily adds discreet textures to these pieces for variety and effect. A chromatic second line madrigalizes the crosswinds in the piece of the same name, while Forging the Sampo acquires both an anvil and drum. Ascending and descending arcs of whistling adorn sections of the Incantation for a Stormy Sea, while whispers are featured in Curse upon Iron. All this sounds very schematic, but the composer fully integrates these devices into his essentially consonant but freely tonal language.

The Svanholm Singers was formed in 1998 and has been led by Sofia Soderberg Eberhard since 2001. They've taken a number of awards: the 2002 Grand Prix at Hora Cantavi, in Poland; first prize at the 2005 Madetoja Festival in Lahti, Finland; three wins at the 2006 Seghizzi International Choir Competition in Gorizia, Italy; and first prize in both contemporary and Renaissance music at the "Tallinn 2007" 10th International Choir Festival. The performances on this album are well blended, intonationally razor sharp, and rhythmically precise. In virtuosic content such as this they truly get to show their mettle, which is of a fine quality.

With excellent sound and good timings, my only criticism of this release lies in its liner notes. We're given nothing on Tormis, and just a few lines on each of the pieces, in English, German, French, and Finnish. The rest of the booklet is made up of the original texts in Finnish and Latin, alongside English translations. This is something of a surprise from Toccata Classics, which normal­ly does a fine job -in providing accompanying material for its releases. That aside, recommended. Would it be too presumptuous to request some orchestral music by Tormis, as well?

Barry Brenesal Fanfare May 2008



合唱道楽 歌い人: December 2007

Absolutely superb performances

The Svanholm Singers, founded in 1998, comprises only 20 voices but is a formidable choir with a massive sound. Under their obviously inspirational conductor, Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, they are more than technically and musically able to cope with the strenuous demands made upon them by Tormis’ often uncompromising music, while also managing to convey a grainy rustic quality to the sound. […] The acoustics of the Lomma kyrka in Skåne suits the singers and the music perfectly, lending just the right degree of resonance to the music, allowing the words perfect clarity yet adding an appropriate bloom to the overall sound.

Derek Warby MusicWeb International October 2007

Well worth tracking down

Tormis is fascinating and that fascination is in no way diluted by this collection of his music for male voice choir.

For all the precision of ensemble and the uniform garb of the choir this music seems to speak of ancient times. There is little in the way of dissonance. Effects, texture, dynamic range and rhythmic topography are constantly varied but all within a distinctive tonal universe. Superficially he may occasionally remind you of Orff. Listen however to the explosive shamanic drumming – courtesy of the composer as player – that assertively opens An aboriginal song. Often the singing conveys a sense of awe in the face of nature or primeval forces. The tolling and crooning murmur of Crosswinds and Our Shadows contrasts with the initial plainsong curve of The Bishop and the Pagan. The latter recounts the story of the death of Bishop Henry near the town of Turku in 1158 and the plainsong element contrasts with the sharply rhythmic and growling pagan voices. More upfront and relishably masculine is Forging the Sampo, complete with its clanging hammer and anvil. There is more of the devotional strain in Incantation for a Stormy Sea. Then comes a selection from the earliest sequence here: The Men’s Songs which date from the 1960s. These are typically Scandinavian, mixing testosterone-charged working songs with more gentle and lighter-hearted inspirations (Betrothal Visit Song). Song of the Turkish War is cheery and is freshened and lofted by eruptive whistling – nothing like ‘Colonel Bogey’. More whistling and clapping enlivens Dancing Song. The blanched devotional strain returns for Serf’s Song. After six selections from the 1960s sequence comes the 1972 Curse Upon Iron which takes as its material the spells and incantations in ‘The Kalevala’. Whispers, whoops and chittering are resourcefully used amid the usual rousingly inventive writing. There is perhaps a touch of Penderecki in those Hiroshima sliding wails towards the end of Curse Upon Iron; must have been in the air at the time. For all the choir’s well drilled technical accomplishments they retain an indispensable grainy roughness that is essential to convey the nature, wildness and gothic terror that sustains Tormis’s inspiration.

This is a superbly recorded and performed selection which is well worth tracking down. Tormis is receiving some attention but is desperately neglected on the world stage in relation to his worth as a composer. Merits the effort of discovery especially if you favour choral work or are a choral conductor and are looking to clamber out of the rut.

Rob Barnett MusicWeb International August 2007

En härlig närvarokänsla

Sällan hör man så prickfritt framförande – utmärkt artikulation, rytmisk precision, makalös palett av klangfärg och dynamik samt knivskarpt intonerande … Tormis anförtrodde Svanholm Singers världspremiären av manskörsversionen av hans kanske mest kända verk Raua Needmine (Curse upon Iron, Järnets förbannelse). Här ger kören prov på balansgång mellan dov mysticism och maximal, dramatisk uttryckskraft med atonala ackord ackompanjerade av tonsättarens skickligt hanterade, men stundtals våldsamma schamantrumma, som ger lyssnaren en härlig närvarokänsla.

Jerker Sjöqvist Opus 2007


This small sampling […] demonstrates the power and originality of his imagination. There is a sense in which his work seems a-historical, the product of a real maverick; it's hard to pinpoint any classical tradition or earlier composers from which his sound might have been derived. Composers since have made some of Tormis' qualities sound commonplace, but he has been writing like this throughout his long career. Central to his distinctiveness is his use of texture and rhythm, as elements more prominent than melody or harmony; the melodies may not stay with you, but the power of the driving pulse and eccentric textures is unforgettable.

Svanholm Singers, directed by Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, performs this music as if it had it in its blood. The group shows remarkable assurance in singing not only with obvious discipline, but with the wildness the music requires. The sound is full, present, and immediate. Fans of modern choral music who aren't familiar with Tormis' music owe it to themselves to explore it, and this collection makes a terrific place to start.

Stephen Eddins All Music


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