Northern Lights

Linking music from four countries of the Baltic: Finland, Estonia, Russia and Denmark

Sibelius: Rakastava
Arvo Pärt: Magnificat
Per Nørgård: Wie ein Kind
Rachmaninov: Panteley the Healer
Veljo Tormis: Karelian Destiny

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This concert links music from four countries of the Baltic: Finland, Estonia, Russia and Denmark. Two works are classic, late romantic part songs: the other three come from very different composers all born in the 1930’s, each with their own radical aesthetic, yet drawing on traditions from deep in the Western tradition. We hope you uncover some hidden links between these five widely differing works, and enjoy this evening’s concert!

Jean Sibelius: Rakastava Op. l4 Sibelius’ importance as a national icon in Finnish music stems from far more than his cycle of seven symphonies. Listeners to the early choral symphony Kullervo (1892) will know that Sibelius was steeped in the culture of the traditional Finnish epic, the Kalevala, and had created, originally for male chorus, a new world of Finnish declamation in choral singing, quite different from the more traditional models of Germanic or Scandinavian settings of his contemporaries.

Rakastava, or The Lover, first saw the light of day as a male voice chorus before Sibelius adapted it for mixed voices in 1898 (it was later to have a further incarnation, as a string orchestra piece, in 1911). The tale is taken from the Finnish book of traditional verse, Kanteletar, and tells a simple tale of love found and, inevitably, lost. Particularly striking is the opening narrative and subsequent A major lyrical section, with its almost minimalist Ei-la refrain hauntingly evoking nostalgic memories of the beloved amidst the beauties of nature. The final section, with the two lovers symbolised by bass and soprano soloists, is one of Sibelius’ most deeply touching evocations. MCG

Arvo Pärt: Magnificat It is now nearly a quarter of a century since the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt began to form the extraordinary synthesis of minimalist simplicity and spirituality for which he is now best known. The Magnificat, written in 1989 when the composer was living in Berlin, post-dates such large-scale works as the St. John Passion and Stabat Mater which, in the mid-1980’s, began to make Pärt a cult figure with their reincorporation of medieval techniques and tonic scales within a radically simplified contemporary idiom. Pärt’s setting of the ancient text is unusual in its joylessness, yet striking for its beauty, compression and apparent timelessness. MCG

Per Nørgård: Wie ein Kind Adolph Wolfli (author of the text of the two outer movements of Wie ein Kind) was born in 1864 in Switzerland. His parents were very poor (his father was a drunkard who would spend his earnings in the local inns) and the five children who survived early childhood (Adolph and his brothers) were in fact brought up in parish child care. The unhappiness of his youth – he was lonely, poor, and an abomination to the fathers of any girls he might fall in love with – came to its sad climax when he was caught in a (vain) attempt at sexual crime. From 1895 until his death in 1930, Wolfli was detained at Waldau, an asylum for the mentally disturbed. He developed here a unique artistic ability, the intensity of which has impressed an increasing number of people. He drew, wrote and decorated more than 20,000 pages, many of them of considerable size. As early as 1921, Waiter Morgenthaler (psychiatrist and doctor, tending Wolfli the patient) published the volume “Ein Geisteskranker als Kunstler” (A Lunatic as an Artist) dealing with the paintings and writings of Wolfli, and Rainer Maria Rilke, the eminent poet, was deeply moved by the quality of Wolfli’s works thus published.

In the present work the composer aims at a confrontation of two poetic expressions: one rising from the tormented soul of a schizophrenic, the other being that of a highly respected and famous poet. The Lullaby (Wiigen-Lied, in Wolfli’s typically sensual spelling) has many psychological aspects, and it is punctuated by a strange, distant call, reminiscent of those of a street vendor or a mother calling from way up in a tower block to her child way down in a narrow courtyard. Spring Song (“Fruhlingslied”) is the song of the happy child – the child in vital harmony, open, playful, sensually aware. Funeral March with Attendant Minor Accident (Trauermarsch mit einem Unglucksfall) repeats the musical themes of the Lullaby, but a male soloist, who does his best to sing after the fashion of his fellow singers, suffers some embarrassing frustrations. Per Nørgård

Sergei Rachmaninov: Panteley the Healer In 1897, the failure of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, on top of a disastrous youth and a series of unhappy infatuations caused an almost complete creative silence for over two years. Finally, the controversial hypnotist Dr. Nicolai Dahl helped the composer to overcome his depression. In gratitude, Rachmaninov dedicated to Dahl his Piano Concerto No.2, yet the choice of Tolstoy’s text for his acappella chorus Panteley the Healer seems even more apposite. Although the work is dated May 4th 1901, the exact period of composition for the piece remains unclear. It is a striking example however, more than a decade before the famous Vespers, of Rachmaninov’s natural feel for choral forces. Harmonial/MCG

Yeijo Tormis: Karelian Destiny The Estonian composer Yeijo Tormis (born 1930) studied at the Moscow Conservatoire. Graduating in 1956, he worked as a teacher of composition and music theory at the Tallinn College of Music, and as consultant for the Estonian Composers Union. He has been a full-time, freelance composer since 1969.

Tormis is first and foremost a composer of vocal and choral music. His choral works often expand to take on symphonic proportions, making imaginative and varied use of tone colours.

Tormis often takes his ideas from folk music, but also from the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg and Finno-Ugric folk poetry. He often makes use not just of the poetry but also the whole folk song, retaining its original form and using the melody line as the basis for the musical structure. His adoption of folk song material took on a more structured form in the major song-cycle Eesti kalendriaulud (Estonian Calendar Songs), composed in 1987 as comprising five smaller cycles built around 29 songs in all. This has been followed by the six part choral cycle Unustalud rahvad (Forgotten Peoples, 1970-1989). In these works he has attempted to preserve the songs of some of the Balto-Finnic peoples whose cultural heritage was on the verge of extinction. Karelian Destiny is the sixth and last work in the cycle.

Karelian Destiny comprises five runic songs, set for mixed voice choir, originating from a region bordered by Finland on the west and the Russian Federation to the cast.

  • Weeping Maiden (1) is a beguiling song (andante) in three stanzas. The maiden is weeping to the rocks and to the cliffs, looking down she sees her father in a boat and asks him to take her with him. “No” he replies, he’s taking the boat to Finland. Only in the final stanza does she find a true love who will take her on board his boat.
  • Suitors from the Sea (2) tells how a maiden sits near the sea, awaiting the arrival of a husband. By turns, suitors appear out of the sea, one clad in iron, another in copper, a third in silver, a fourth in gold. Only with the appearance of the fifth suitor, who is clothed in corn does the maiden give her heart.
  • A Serf in Viru (3) is a narrative tale about a poor serf who is ill-treated by his master and dies from cold and starvation. In the other world the serf finds all the comforts which his master had known, whereas the master now finds only hellish torments.
  • The Oak Cutter (4) is a more complex, darkly ambiguous folk tale about a man who will rise from the sea to fell a mighty oak tree containing apples bearing golden balls.
  • Lullaby (5), the final folk song, is about a mother rocking the cradle containing her dead child. The closing stanzas of the song, whilst embracing elements of hope and regeneration, also contains a note of protest at the child’s cruel fate. Merike Vaitmaalphilip Taylorl/MCG

  • “An entrancing aural kaleidoscope,...
    which beguiles with its ravishing combination of the ethereal and the profound" (Radio 3 broadcaster, Jeremy Summerly)

    "The singing is among the finest you’ll hear from a chamber choir" (Radio WRST, University of Wisconsin)

    "A very enterprising selection...the choir make a light, fresh sound and sing with enthusiasm and commitment...the music is well performed and well recorded"

    Buy the CD

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  • “A fine choral disc…well worth a listen” (Fiona Maddocks/The Guardian)

    Released in June 2019

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  • Stopford: Ave Regina Caelorum

  • Tavener: Butterfly dreams

  • Poulenc: Bois meurtri

  • Musgrave: The subway piranhas

  • Weir: Love bade me welcome

  • Britten: Carry her over the water

  • Fauré: In paradisum

  • Somewhere over the rainbow

  • Chilcott: Advent Antiphons

  • Rachmaninov: Vespers

  • Allwood: Charades III

  • Tallis: Lamentations

  • Josquin: Agnus Dei

  • Have yourself a merry little Xmas

  • Schumann: Zuversicht

  • Poulenc: La bonne neige

  • Stanford: The Blue Bird

  • Britten: God’s grandeur


  • Recordings

    It would be difficult to praise the performances too highly (Choir and Organ)

    Highly attractive...hugely enjoyable" (Time Out)

    Robust yet tonally refined performances ***** (BBC Music Magazine)

    Sam Laughton's Elysian Singers perform here with captivating intensity ***** (Classic FM)

    Subtle, disciplined, radiant (Gramophone)

    The Elysian Singers perform this often difficult work with clarity, precision and emotional punch (American Record Guide)

    Exquisitely sung with full-bodied, lively tone ***** (Classic CD)

    Magnificent (Church Times)

  • Media

    I travel back from London with the St Matthew Passion filling my head, after the moving performance from the Elysian Singers and Royal Orchestral Society under Sam Laughton at St James’s Piccadilly (The Spectator, April 2019)

    The female voices of the Elysian Singers contributed to a magical serenity descending over the [Albert] hall during Neptune, and when considered alongside the evening’s earlier strengths, helped to register this show as an undoubted early highlight of this year’s [Prom] festival (Music OMH, July 2015)

    A profound otherworldliness was initiated by the entry of the Elysian Singers, the off-stage female chorus seeming to sing from a distant planet, far beyond earthly realms (Seen and Heard International, July 2015)

    In the posthumous premiere of Sir John Tavener’s Monument to Beethoven, [John] Scott’s organ interjections brought visionary breadth to the Elysian Singers’ luminous tapestry (The Times, March 2014)

    Amongst chamber choirs they’re one of the best (Sir John Tavener, BBC TV interview)

    The classy Elysian Singers (Howard Goodall on Twitter, November 2013)

    That superb choir (John Woolrich, Radio 3)

    The excellent Elysian Singers directed by Sam Laughton (Classical Source, reviewing our 2014 Festival Hall concert)

    Ambitious, well executed and strangely compelling (Simon Jack, reviewing Open Outcry on Radio 4)

    Excellently performed by the Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton (Keith Potter, The Independent)

    A persuasive ensemble, excellently attuned to this repertory (The York Press)

    “The Elysian Singers came up trumps…luminously soft and uniform” (David Ardatti review)

  • Feedback

    Heard you sing last Sunday in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Wow! (especially the Kodaly). Thanks, come again soon (S&MG, Dublin)

    I was moved, not just by the music, but also by the creativity of humankind, continually sharing new ways of contemplating life, and by the discipline of ordinary people who work hard and unpaid to interpret this beauty and emotion to others (York blog)

    Last night’s concert was wonderful–and the links between these two great composers intriguing. Many thanks indeed (PE, Oxford)

    Heard your Gallant Weaver recording played on Radio 3 this morning – beautiful! It made my day 🙂 Gordon (e-mail address supplied)

    There were so many bits I loved. But most of all you looked, as a choir, like you were actually enjoying yourselves. Your encore made me cry for some reason – I think sitting there for a couple of hours was perfect therapy in the run up to Christmas – it made me want to run home and stick the girls’ stockings up and scatter cinnamon around the house (TM, London)

    Your CD of Sir Granville Bantock’s music arrived today – what treasures it contains. As someone who has enjoyed singing in choirs for many years, I found this recording very special. Congratulations to all concerned!! (BL, Hobart, Tasmania)

    I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying the new album. The choir sounds fabulous throughout. Congratulations! Please pass along my gratitude to your excellent singers (JL, USA)

    The closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience for a very long time… (DF, Streatham, after hearing the choir perform James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross)

    You made such a lovely sound this morning. Ave regina coelorum was exquisite – quite the loveliest thing I’ve heard for a long time (J P-B, Salisbury, 2011)

    We cannot thank you enough for the beautiful singing, which totally exceeded our expectations. We feel very privileged. I particularly loved the descant – it was a moment I will always remember (N&T wedding, April 2013)

    The Elysian Singers truly live up to their name; there is something heavenly about their singing…For the duration of [Peter Maxwell Davies’ Solstice of Light], I felt washed clean by its words and its music, taken out of the clutter and complications of London life. (JB, London blog, Feb 2014)

    Beautiful, uplifting music and an eclectic repertoire. A very enjoyable evening (Audience Club reviewer, Feb 2019).