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Estonian Chamber Music: Performers and Composers

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Estonian Chamber Music: Performers and Composers

European Chamber Music Teachers' Association, Tallinn 6.05.2012
Urve Lippus

I was asked to give a short survey of Estonian chamber music, however, it will be impossible to cover the whole field in one presentation and I've chosen to discuss the influence of active performers to the development of new repertoire. Sometimes that means eventual commissions by a performer or an ensemble to a definite composer, sometimes that is a long-time teamwork, but often some interesting ensemble inspires composers to create and offer new works. I'd like to discuss some changes in the repertoire of Estonian chamber music from this point of view.

Nowadays, it is not so easy to define what is chamber music. We have classical chamber ensembles – instrumental duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and vocal chamber ensembles – mostly solo voice and piano. Often such partnerships and ensembles are quite stable, the same musicians work together for years and even decades and the existence of an ensemble inspires composers to write for them. But in the second half of the 20th century and, in Estonian music, particularly since the end of the 1980s, new music is often composed in search of unexpected and changing combinations of instruments and voices. That has lead to the rise of a new kind of chamber ensembles – that is a group of musicians, who can form different smaller ensembles, but also perform all together. Although, I think, the first impetus to form such ensembles with more or less permanent membership and formalized administration was the existence of interesting repertoire, in turn they inspired and commissioned new music written for their selection of instruments and specific sound. Certainly, composers often write new works for unexpected and non-traditional ensembles without having any definite addressee in mind and put together a project group for performing and recording the music. However, writing for an ensemble with planned concert life gives much more guarantee that the music will be performed more than once.

In classical-romantic or traditional chamber music the most common instrument is piano, although string quartets and wind quintets are also very important chamber ensembles. However, it is easier to put together duos and trios with piano and there is huge amount of classical repertoire for such ensembles for it was the most widespread way of making music before the era of recording. That is, probably, the reason why most of chamber music teachers, at least at our academy, are pianists. In new ensembles, piano is also important and often used, but it is not so dominating. And in addition to the piano, other instruments with similar function have been used. At least in Estonia that is related to the activities of some musicians – our guitar teacher Heiki Mätlik, who has arranged and commissioned a lot of repertoire for different ensembles with guitar, the growing popularity of harpsichord playing, and, recently, also kannel, a kind of plucked zither, has become a challenging instrument for new music composers due to Kristi Mühling, our teacher of kannel. Actually, I do not know whether small ensembles with live electronics or percussion belong to chamber music, thus I'd stop here.

Now, I'd go to Estonian chamber music and will discuss first some music for traditional chamber ensembles from the point of view how performers have influenced the rise of new repertoire. I'll leave aside the most common ensemble, that is piano and another instrument, and start from trios. A traditional classical ensemble is violin, piano and cello. In earlier Estonian music we find only a few trios, but since 1960s many composers have some music for this ensemble. That is related to the activities of Tallinna Trio (Jüri Gerretz, Valdur Roots, Toomas Velmet), who started playing together in the 1960s and were active until about 1990. They and have premiered three trios (2.–4., 1962, 1973, 1975) by Jaan Rääts, two trios by Mati Kuulberg (1977, 1987) by Mati Kuulberg and a number of others. In 1997 a new trio, Uus Tallinna Trio (Harri Traksmann, Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann, Kaido Kelder) started and again music for this ensemble has flourished, although not any more in the form of classical trio. They have premiered works by Helena Tulve (lumineux/ opaque, 2002), Tõnu Kõrvits (Unesulased, 2006) and are always among the performes at the new Estonian music festivals.

An important classical chamber ensemble is string quartet. Again, we can observe the influence of a permanent ensemble, active for more than a decade, to the formation of repertoire. There were different string quartets active in the 1930s and 1940s, but in 1956 the Philharmonic string quartet was founded (Vladimir Alumäe, Endel Lippus, Herbert Laan, August Karjust) and after 1959 most of the players continued as the Tallinn Conservatoire String Quartet with Endel Lippus as the first violin and gave regular concert series at the Kadriorg Palace through the 1960s. Eino Tamberg, Jaan Rääts, Ester Mägi, Helmut Rosenvald and several other composers composed for them, in this decade mostly in neoclassical style and traditional quartet cycles. However, the series of haiku's by Kuldar Sink for string quartet and singer was already a sign of new music for this traditional ensemble. Later, a number of more or less permanent quartets have continued. At present moment several are active, but Tallinn String Quartet with Urmas Vulp as the first violin has the longest history going back to 1984 and their role in premiering and recording Estonian quartet music can't be overestimated.

Example: Ester Mägi, String Quartet no. 2, Elegies (1965), 3rd movement Allegretto.

Recorded in 1966, The String Quartet of the Tallinn Conservatoire (Lippus, Kärmas, Purga, Tummeleht).

As another traditional ensemble a wind quintet has been important. From the mid-1950s until 1990 a wind quintet organized and led by the flutist Samuel Saulus has been active in Estonian musical life and very popular among composers. Other members of the ensemble have changed, later the ensemble took the name of Jaan Tamm, a horn player and director of Tallinn conservatoire in the 1930s. The classical repertoire of wind ensemble is not so rich as that of the string quartet, but the cooperation of this ensemble and particularly their leader Samuel Saulus with composers has brought about numberous and interesting repertoire including neoclassical quintets by Eino Tamberg and quite new music like Architectonics I by Erkki-Sven Tüür (1984).

Example: Erkki-Sven Tüür, Architectonics I (1984)

Recorded in 1987, Jaan Tamm Wind Quintet (Saulus, Leho Läte ob, Kalev Velthut cl, Kalle Kauksi, Andres Lepnurm)

This and the following compositions of the series of Architectonics by Erkki-Sven Tüür composerd for different ensembles were also the core of the repertuare of the new music ensemble NYYD in early 1990s. NYYD-ensemble (since 1993), in translation „Now", a group of about 10–15 musicians under the leadership of the conductor Olari Elts was founded for the festival NYYD (NOW). This biannual festival of new music took first place in 1991and has continued under the artistic leadership of the composer Erkki-Sven Tüür and producer Madis Kolk. NYYD-ensemble is a typical new music group. They can form almost a small chamber orchestra, but most of their repertoire includes music for different untraditional chambler ensembles, sometimes combined with live electronics. However, they can also regroup into more traditional ensembles and perform new music for string quartet, wind quintet and other such ensembles.

Example: Toivo Tulev, Quella Sera (1996).

NYYD-ensemble, cond. Olari Elts, (Mihkel Peäske fl, Kalev Kuljus ob, Tarmo Pajusaar cl, Tarmo Velmet bassoon, Kalmer Kiik horn, Madis Metsamart perc, Jana Peäske pf, Harry Traksmann & Merje Hallik vl, Martti Mägi vla, Leho Karin vlc, Jüri Lepp dbass) – 12 players

NYYD-ensemble was particularly important as a catalyst of new music in the 1990s and early 2000s, recently their leader Olari Elts has become more active as a symphonic conductor. Another ensemble promoting new music and working actively with composers was founded in 2002 by the pianist Taavi Kerikmäe and the flutist Tarmo Johannes. This ensemble consisting of six members is really a chamber ensemble, but in a similar way in their repertoire they have music for the whole ensemble as well as for different smaller combinations. The pianist Taavi Kerikmäe is also the teacher of new chamber music at our academy. The flutist Tarmo Johannes has initiated also another ensemble of new music together with the kannel (zither) player Kristi Mühling Resonabilis (also in 2002). This is quite exceptional combination of musicians consisting of a flute, zither, cello and singer, therefore, most of their repertoire is commissioned and composed directly for this ensemble. However, they also perform music for smaller combinations and arrangements of different music for Kristi Mühling's kannel.

Example: Margo Kõlar, Võlujärv (1983)

Recorded 2007/2008, Resonabilis (Tarmo Johannes, Kristi Mühling, Iris Oja, Aare Tammesalu)

Finally, I'd like to introduce a new and really unexpected ensemble that has been active in Estonian concert life already for a few years – ensemble Una corda, consisting again of kannel (Kristi Mühling), harpsichord (Ene Nael) and harp (Liis Jürgens). Some of their repertoire has been earlier performed by Kristi Mühling with her ensemble of several kannels, but the recomposed for this ensemble – and again we see the role of active performer in the rise of repertoire. But the enchanting sound of this ensemble of three similar, yet slightly different string instruments has inspired several composers to write new works for them.

Example: Helena Tulve, Silmajad (2006/2009), first version for three kannels performed at the opening of the new art museum Kumu in 2006.

Recorded in 2009, Ene Nael, Kristi Mühling, Liis Jürgens.

In conclusion, I'd like to stress the importance of the performer and, particularly, of ensembles with long-time active concert life to the rise of new interesting repertoire.