An Estonian Choir Channels Emily Brontë's Windswept Blues

Jul 6, 2017
Originally published on July 6, 2017 4:50 am

Most people love to sing, but in Estonia, they take their singing very seriously. At the Estonian Song Festivals, for example, over 30 thousand singers routinely show up to form one gigantic chorus. Among the Baltic country's smaller, professional vocal ensembles, the Grammy-winning Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is considered one of the world's best. When the group releases a new album, fans of choral music listen up.

The choir comprises just over two dozen voices, but those voices can produce a complex blend of sounds that is luminous, supple and surprisingly strong. The group can sing Gregorian chant, Mozart or Stravinsky just fine, but throughout its three-decade history, the choir has earned its stripes singing new music.

For this new album, Moorland Elegies, the music is homegrown. Composer Tõnu Kõrvits, one of Estonia's rising stars, can pare the choir down to wisps of smoke or paint with bold, swirling, van Gogh-like strokes.

Raising voices in song is central to Estonians. In the summer of 1988, 100,000 people gathered for five nights to sing patriotic and protest songs aimed at the Soviet Union. Those long nights of song were a key part of a movement that won Estonian independence three years later.

The only protest songs on this new album, however, are aimed at love's misfortunes. The texts are by Emily Brontë, the English author who, at age 29, published Wuthering Heights. Like her novel, these poems are haunted by shadowy, windswept moors and coiled emotions. Kõrvits' music follows suit.

Brontë's words, of course, propel the stories in these songs — stories of love gone cold and restless moonlit nights. But the strings, closely miked in these agile performances by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, seem to form a character of their own. They can toll like bells or float with gauzy impressionism and, when they swim together with the choir, it can be tough to tell the two apart.

Kõrvits is not afraid to push the singers into unconventional textures. In the song "She Dried Her Tears," Brontë's poem portrays a woman weeping at midnight. In the music, male voices intertwine to conjure her sobbing. It's just the right amount of gothic melodrama.

Whether it's thousands of voices or just two dozen, when they rise together in song something powerful can happen. Like on this album, where the fertile imaginations of a young Estonian composer and a long-gone English author intersect to produce a few moments of magic.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOORLAND ELEGIES: NO. 2. SILENT IS THE HOUSE")

ESTONIAN PHILHARMONIC CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing) Silent is the house.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This choir is from Estonia, a country that takes singing seriously. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, winner of two Grammy Awards, is considered one of today's best vocal ensembles. And when the group releases a new album, fans of choral music listen up. And so does our reviewer, NPR's Tom Huizenga.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is just two dozen voices. But those voices can produce a complex blend of sounds that is luminous and supple.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOORLAND ELEGIES: NO. 9. MONTH AFTER MONTH")

ESTONIAN PHILHARMONIC CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing) My soul is day.

HUIZENGA: The choir can sing Gregorian chant, Mozart or Stravinsky just fine. But throughout its three-decade history, the group has earned its stripes singing new music. And for this new album, the music is homegrown. The composer is Tonu Korvits, one of Estonia's rising stars. He can pare the choir down to just wisps of smoke or paint with bold, swirling strokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOORLAND ELEGIES: NO. 8. THE STARRY NIGHT SHALL TIDINGS BRING")

ESTONIAN PHILHARMONIC CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing) Watch out, starry night, breezy moor, starry night.

HUIZENGA: Raising voices in song is central to Estonians. In the summer of '88, over 100,000 gathered for five nights to sing patriotic and protest songs aimed at the Soviet Union. Those long nights of song were a key part of a movement that won Estonian independence three years later. The only protest songs on this new album, however, are aimed at love's misfortunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOORLAND ELEGIES: NO. 8. THE STARRY NIGHT SHALL TIDINGS BRING")

ESTONIAN PHILHARMONIC CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing) Watch for a bird with sable wing, watch for a bird...

HUIZENGA: The words are poems by English author Emily Bronte, who wrote "Wuthering Heights." And like her novel, these poems are haunted by shadowy, windswept moors and coiled emotions. The music follows suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOORLAND ELEGIES: NO. 4. FALL, LEAVES, FALL")

ESTONIAN PHILHARMONIC CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing) Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away. Lengthen night and...

HUIZENGA: Bronte's words, of course, propel the stories in these songs, stories of love gone cold and restless, moonlit nights. But the strings, closely mic'd, seem to form a character of their own.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONU KORVITS SONG, "MOORLAND ELEGIES: NO. 4. FALL, LEAVES, FALL")

HUIZENGA: They can toll like bells or float with a gauzy impressionism. And when the strings swim together with the choir, it's tough to tell the two apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOORLAND ELEGIES: NO. 7. THE SUN HAS SET")

ESTONIAN PHILHARMONIC CHAMBER CHOIR: (Vocalizing).

HUIZENGA: Whether it's thousands of voices or just two dozen, when they rise together in song, something powerful can happen. Like on this album, where the fertile imaginations of a young Estonian composer and a long-gone English author intersect to produce a few moments of pure magic.

SIEGEL: The new album by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is "Moorland Elegies." Our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOORLAND ELEGIES: NO. 9. MONTH AFTER MONTH")

ESTONIAN PHILHARMONIC CHAMBER CHOIR: (Singing) My soul is day. My soul is day, is day. My soul is, my soul is day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.