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To the North…


Ivari Ilja, piano

ERP 12922

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Released on January 10th, 2023

1 Tõnu Kõrvits The Riddle * 1:52
2 Peeter Vähi Purgatorio * 18:56
3 Eduard Tubin Ballade in the Form of a Chaconne on a Theme by Mart Saar 10:23
Tõnu Kõrvits Three Pieces 5:57
4 Harmonies
5 Mechanics
6 Love Song (from Dolores’s Songbook)
Ester Mägi Three Sea Tableaux * 11:28
7 Allegro
8 Adagio con moto
9 Vivo
Eduard Oja Silent Moods 4:29
10 Lento, con moto
11 Lento assai
12 Andante
Eduard Oja Suggestions 9:44
13 Yearning
14 Lamentations
15 Melancholy
16 Death
17 The Shadows of Toonela *
18 Tõnu Kõrvits To the North… ** 5:42

* World premiere recordings
** Dedicated to Ivari Ilja

#3, Tõnu Kõrvits. The Riddle, 1 min 38 sec, mp3, 320 Kbps

#2, Peeter Vähi. Purgatorio, fragment, 5 min 18 sec, mp3, 320 Kbps

#9, Ester Mägi. Three Sea Tableaux. Vivo, fragment, 2 min 8 sec, mp3, 320 Kbps

#14, Eduard Oja. Suggestions. Lamentations, 1 min 57 sec, mp3, 320 Kbps

Performed by Ivari Ilja

Recorded in August 2022 in the Hall of Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre
Piano: Steinway & Sons D-274

Sound engineering and mastering by Tanel Klesment (Audio Maja)
Piano tuned by Andres Leesik
Liner notes by Evelin Kõrvits
Artist photo by Elena Martynyuk
Painting La commedia illumina Firenze by Domenico di Michelin
Design by Mart Kivisild
Recording production and photos by Peeter Vähi

ERP 12922
℗ Klangex, Estonian Record Productions
© Klangex, Estonian Record Productions

The solo piano album To the North… by pianist Ivar Ilja features Estonian piano music written by renowned masters from the past century as well as contemporary composers.

The album is framed by the poetic and subtle works of Tõnu Kõrvits, which have been composed during the last decade. Kõrvits has established himself as a sought-after composer, with works commissioned by performers and contemporary music festivals both at home and abroad. The composer comes from a musical family. He graduated from the Estonian Academy of Music in Raimo Kangro’s composition class and studied at the Master’s level with Prof Jaan Rääts. At present, Kõrvits teaches composition at the same institution.
His versatile oeuvre includes all traditional genres from orchestral music, instrumental ensembles and works for solo instruments to choral music, solo songs and operas. Besides, he is known as an accomplished arranger and orchestrator of popular music. His aspiration for beauty, harmony, and sublimity is reminiscent of the Romantic era’s artists. “It is this sublimity, raising romantic feelings to the podium and exuberant feelings that are close to me. All this reflects the mystery of the human soul, but sometimes also suffering. At the same time, there is something very Nordic about it,” the composer said.
The Riddle, an aphoristic piano miniature by Tõnu Kõrvits, opens the album. The piece is written for Ivari Ilja, who premiered it on December 17, 2018 at House of the Blackheads in Tallinn.
The idea of The Riddle came to me in an enigmatic form (hence the title). It is based on a musical pattern made up of harmonics that transforms like a riddle throughout the piece. (Tõnu Kõrvits)
Three Pieces for piano was commissioned as a compulsory piece for the VIII Estonian Pianists’ Competition. It is a contrasting trio of moods and textures: the first piece (Harmonies) is a contemplative and chordal, followed by fast passages and sharp accents in the second piece (Mechanics), while the third (Love Song from Dolores’s Songbook) stands out with its cantilena character. The last piece has an intriguing backstory. Namely, in an abandoned house near his country house, the composer discovered a songbook handwritten by its long gone habitant Dolores – a peculiar woman who, according to the stories of the villagers, “talked” to birds, cured diseases with herbal mixtures and played an instrument. Kõrvits has used the tunes from Dolores’s book also in works such as Ballade for symphony orchestra (2013), Three Songs from Dolores’s Songbook for English horn (2015) and Songs from Dolores’s Songbook for male choir (2016).
Several of his opuses are inspired by the Nordic beautiful and brisk nature. “When I’m writing music, I want to bring the secrets of that geographical point into my work as well. And I want to share it with my listeners,” Tõnu Kõrvits has stated.
The album’s title work, To the North is dedicated to pianist Ivari Ilja, who gave the premiere on February 16, 2018 in the Estonia Concert Hall as part of the festival Northern Lights.
To the North… is built on a collision of two sound worlds: on the one hand, bright harmonies and flickering and colorful shimmerings in the upper register, and on the other, warm harmonies. As if there is a fusion of air masses with different temperatures, causing the northern lights to glow. From this energy, a song is born – an anthem to our beautiful northern sky and light. (Tõnu Kõrvits)

Peeter Vähi’s name is associated in the Estonian cultural landscape with Classical, rock and pop music. In his youth, he studied accordion, double bass and musicology. In 1974, he began his composition studies at the Estonian Academy of Music under Prof. Eino Tamberg, and in 1980 obtained a composer’s diploma. Vähi has worked as a freelance composer and producer, and he is the founder and artistic director of the festivals Orient and Glasperlenspiel.
Oriental and Western, avant-garde and archaic, acoustic and electronic elements coexist in his musical language. Vähi has composed works for symphony orchestra, choirs, chamber ensembles, electronic and ethnic instruments, expressing emotions ranging from meditative-philosophical tranquillity to ecstasy.
His piano piece Purgatorio was written specifically for Ivari Ilja to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), one of the greatest poets of the Renaissance era. The Divine Comedy, the writers’s masterpiece of world literature, describes his imaginary journey into the afterlife – Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven – led by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. The Divine Comedy offers a charming insight into Medieval European beliefs and has inspired writers and artists with its beautiful use of language and touching story. Peeter Vähi was inspired by the second part of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The piano work begins and ends with the lyrics of the first and last song (XXXIII) of Purgatory, which the performer recites soundlessly in his internal speech at his own pace. After nearly 20 minutes of musical meditation, one is “clean and ready to rise to the stars”.

Eduard Tubin is best known in Estonian music history as a symphonist and the creator of Estonia’s first ballet The Goblin, but he has created masterpieces in almost all major genres. Tubin began his career as a conductor and composer in Tartu in the second half of the 1920s. Before the end of WWII, he fled to Sweden from the Soviet occupation, and continued to compose music in exile. His oeuvre is a kind of bridge between pre-war modernism and contemporary European musical expression.
Living deeply through the fate of his country and people, Tubin created one of his most compelling and meaningful piano pieces in Sweden – Ballade in the form of chaconne on a theme by Mart Saar. The melody, which had been etched into Tubin’s memory, comes from Saar’s choral work Seitse sammeldunud sängi  to the text of the Estonian national Epic Kalevipoeg, whereas Saar’s song in turn is based on an authentic Estonian folk tune. Tubin’s Ballade is, on the one hand, a tribute to Mart Saar as the great figure of Estonian national music, and, on the other, the author’s passionate and fiery protest – after all, the beds or tombs in the verses of Kalevipoeg symbolize the slavery of the seven centuries, which had now returned to his native land in a new form.
The theme by Mart Saar has been varied by the composer using one of his favourite musical forms, the chaconne. Here, Tubin demonstrates his prowess as a symphonic thinker; the work stands out for its epic-dramatic style of expression, monumental symphonic development and powerful culmination. The Ballade was premiered in Stockholm on June 6, 1945 by Olav Roots.

Ester Mägi, who lived to be 99, was the keeper of Estonian musical continuity from the first period of independence to the present day. Her oeuvre has its roots in the archaic world of Estonian folk music, which she learned about under the tutelage of her composition teacher Mart Saar at the Tallinn Conservatory. By remaining true to herself, Mägi has elaborated the folk music-based sound language inherited from Mart Saar, combining it with the modern thinking and sound. Estonian pianist and musicologist Helju Tauk has compared Mägi’s output to the bog landscape: “It is not striking from a distance; you will notice its diverse beauty, colours, and very pleasant details only as you get closer.”
Chamber works, in which Mägi’s introspective and reserved sonic world unfolds especially beautifully, hold the most remarkable place in the author’s rich and diverse creative heritage. Mägi has composed ten works for the piano as a solo instrument. The piano was her “own” instrument; Mägi began her musical studies in the field of piano, but had to give up her career as a pianist due to a hand illness; the piano was also her tool for composing. Three Sea Tableaux is a piano cycle written by a young author who has moved away from the paths of national romantic style and is searching for new means of expression and musical rhetoric. The composer uses different modes (augmented, diminished, varied, etc.) and creates an impressionistic sound painting comparable to Debussy with iridescent passages and harmonies. The premiere of the cycle was given on February 28, 1962 in Tallinn by Laine Mets. It is an extremely demanding work for a pianist, which may explain why it is only now getting its first recording.

Eduard Oja, a little-known Estonian composer, lived a brief life filled with creative fervour. He attended the Tartu Teachers’ Seminar with Eduard Tubin, who encouraged him to study composition with Heino Eller at Tartu Higher Music School. Subsequently, Oja taught at the same school and worked as a choir conductor and music critic. Oja’s teacher, Heino Eller, described him as follows: “He has a restless soul, and his life is an incessant burning. I have even worried that he will burn out too quickly. Nonetheless, he is exceptionally gifted and productive […] I admire his sense of form and fantasy in particular.”
There is no complete overview of Eduard Oja’s ouvre, because several works have been destroyed by the author himself or have been lost. His central opus is the hitherto unperformed opera A Redeemed Vow, but he has also written works for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, choir, and piano. His sound language was highly innovative in its time and greatly enriched Estonian music.
The three-part cycle Silent Moods, probably composed in 1930, is one of Oja’s best-known piano works. With simple and laconic means, the author has achieved extraordinary concentration and expressiveness. According to the composer’s daughter, Vaike Oja: “You must delve deeply into these pieces. It’s like an internal insight in which every note is crucial. You must pay attention to every sound and immerse yourself in music.” Harmonically, the work is based on an eight-note mode (a halftone-wholetone scale), through which the author has achieved a unique world of sound and intonational integrity. Oja later adapted these pieces for string orchestra.
A remarkable piano work from Eduard Oja’s youth is also the cycle Suggestions, which he wrote during his studies at the Tartu Higher Music School. This composition, with its sharp contrasts and dissonant harmonies, was one of the first of an expressionist style in Estonian piano music, reflecting Oja’s tragic nature and his psychologically sensitive perception of the world. In the manuscript, each movement is titled in French: I Le Désir, II Les soupirs, III Mélancolie, IV La mort, and V Les Ombres de Toonela.

Pianist Ivari Ilja made his recital debut at the Estonia Concert Hall in 1979. He has given solo recitals in Estonia, France, United Kingdom, China, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Finland, Sweden, etc. He has performed as a soloist with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra on several tours, as well as with orchestras such as the Vanemuine Symphony Orchestra, the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, the Vaasa, Oulu, Kotka, and Uppsala City Orchestras, the Nordic Symphony Orchestra, the St Petersburg Philharmonic Academic Orchestra, and many others. Ivari Ilja has worked with conductors such as Arvo Volmer, Veronika Dudarova, Eri Klas, Paul Mägi, Theodore Kuchar, Olari Elts, Stephen Gunzenhauser, Peeter Lilje, Hannu Norjanen, Urs Schneider, and others.
His repertoire mostly consists of music from the Romantic era, primarily of piano works by Chopin, Brahms, and Schumann, but also by Mozart, Prokofiev, and Britten. Of Estonian composers, Ivari Ilja has performed at most the works by Eduard Tubin and Tõnu Kõrvits.
Ivari Ilja is also an internationally recognized accompanist and ensemble musician, whose long-time collaboration with renowned singers Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Irina Arkhipova, Maria Guleghina and Elena Zaremba has been particularly successful and acclaimed. He has also served on the juries of several prestigious international competitions, including the International Maj Lind Piano Competition in Helsinki and the Scottish International Piano Competition in Glasgow.
Ivari Ilja studied the piano at the Tallinn State Conservatoire with Prof Laine Mets and at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatoire with Prof Vera Gornostayeva and Prof Sergey Dorensky.
Ivari Ilja is a piano professor at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre; several of his students have won prestigious prizes in international competitions and have acquired a solid place in both Estonian and international concert life. In 2001, he was awarded the Estonian National Culture Award and in 2006, the prize of the Estonian Music Council. Ilja has served as the rector of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre since 2017, from the same year, he is also the president of the Estonian Music Council.

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