Eller: Neenia; Lyric Suite; Five Pieces; Sinfonietta; Elegy

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COMPOSERS: Eller
LABELS: ECM
WORKS: Neenia; Lyric Suite; Five Pieces; Sinfonietta; Elegy
PERFORMER: Tallinn CO/Tonu Kaljuste
CATALOGUE NO: 461 661-2
Heino Eller (1887-1970) became a vital force in the music of his country, and the international celebrity of present-day Estonian composers is largely due to him: pupils included Arvo Pärt and Lepo Sumera. He was important both as a teacher and simply as a setter of high and humane artistic standards, and many of his melodies are held in affection by the Estonian public. This useful conspectus of his music for string orchestra includes some of his best-known pieces (there’s a rival version of the Elegy on Chandos; of the Five Pieces on Ondine). If they don’t reveal a major master, they testify to a fastidious, civilised, deeply feeling composer who was obviously a complete master of his craft (Eller trained in St Petersburg from 1907 to 1920).

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On the whole he’s presented as a miniaturist – the 12-minute single movement of Elegy is the largest structure here – but an unusually subtle and sensitive one. The Lyric Suite, based on piano pieces composed in World War Two, when Eller’s wife was killed by the Nazis, has an almost Griegian charm that is prone to open on to briefly evoked tragic abysses. The Five Pieces were also arranged from piano pieces, mostly dating back to Eller’s student days in St Petersburg, yet they speak much the same idiom as the other works. If the very late Sinfonietta (1965-7) shows a stylistic development it is in the direction of a blithe and wiry neo-classicism. Altogether there’s much in this music that should appeal to lovers of Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Hindemith or Grieg. The Tallinn players expound it with sympathy and understanding in a typically vivid ECM recording. Calum MacDonald