The Holst Singers are acclaimed as one of England’s greatest amateur choirs. The talent and commitment of the individual singers and the leadership of their mercurial conductor, Stephen Layton, ensure that their performances are always of the very highest standards.
Veljo Tormis is—along with Arvo Pärt—Estonia’s most famous living composer, holding an almost mystic status in his home country. He is also the passionate and practical torch-bearer for folk-singing revival, and the integration of an ancient cultural inheritance into thoroughly modern, post-Soviet lives. Interestingly, he trained at the Moscow conservatoire and was steeped in Soviet instruction during his early musical life. His music is almost all written for choirs; few composers have ever been so committed to one genre. Tormis’s choral specialism marks him out from Bartók, Kodály, Vaughan Williams and Grainger, whose pioneering interest in folksong was ultimately less purist given their use of the tunes alone in instrumental or orchestral works: for Tormis, the words and the music are inseparable.
The Holst Singers were recently invited to Estonia to perform Tormis’s music—a great honour, and a mark of their mastery of the repertoire.
‘Stephen Layton and his superlative choir deliver an inspiring programme of a capella choral works by the Estonian composer. The music springs from the East European folk tradition – rhythmic underlay, biting harmonies, melodies seemingly smoothed by time. The British choristers tackle these alien sounds with conviction, precision, passion, perfect tuning across the octaves and much variety of tone colour and dynamics. Exciting moments abound: the Livonian songs are wittily profound, the final chord of Heather is a golden climax, while Childhood Memory proves that the choir harbours top soloists as well. It’s hard to believe that they all have day jobs’ (The Times)
‘After Arvo Part, Tormis is probably Estonia’s most important living composer … Here the Holst Singers under the indefatigable Stephen Layton explore this fascinating legacy, a mixture of arrangements of folk songs and original music inspired by the honesty and freshness of their idiom, in performances of characteristic spirit, atmosphere and incisiveness’ (Daily Telegraph)
‘These splendid performances highlight the music’s elemental aspects (not just evocations of forces of nature but the spirit of the country, long suppressed by occupiers), the Holst Singers’ commitment bringing out the ferocity of some passages with a quite scary intensity’ (BBC Music Magazine)
‘A beautifully prepared and executed compilation. Stephen Layton and his Holst Singers have a well deserved reputation as bold explorers, and their intelligence and dedication are evident here’ (Gramophone)
‘It is very good news that the music of Veljo Tormis has, in recent years, become the province of choirs from outside Estonia … [Holst Singers] Their musical and linguistic virtuosity is more than proof that this music travels very well indeed … This collection covers quite a wide chronological range, covering Tormis’s earlier phase … and his later works, deriving their essence from the folk traditions disappearing around him and herladed here by the unforgettable, incantatory first song of the cycle Liivlaste parandus. It is this kind of writing that elicits of the Holst Singers’ best work, totally involved, with a hugely impressive full-throated resonance but also capable of tremendous delicacy and poise’ (International Record Review)
‘These performances by the Holst Singers under Stephen Layton capture the mustical simplicity of Tormis’s choral style, a touching blend of naturally-flowing tonality tinged with splashes of judiciously applied dissonance. Estonian lullabies, game songs, and othe more sulty examples of his mellifluous writing give character and variety to this colourful selection of a cappella part songs’ (The Scotsman)
‘The singing is nothing short of extraordinary…Stephen Layton summons up the most varied set of fortes and pianissimos…All good conductors work hard to taper their louds and softs, but this guy does it with an expressive flair that’s overwhelming…The choral artistry lives up to the music, and that’s saying a lot’ (American Record Guide)
‘This collection of choral songs is full of any number of magical effects that can only be realized by the very best ensembles. The Holst Singers surely fall into that category: In this range of works composed between 1948 and 1989 that range in tone from ambitious to playful, the group encompasses the Estonian earthiness without letting the music-making become too pretty’ (Fanfare, USA)
‘This wonderful new Hyperion release dedicated to Tormis’ music with Stephen Layton and the Holst Singers should, by virtue of its fascinating resuscitation of internationally neglected works, further contribute to the composer’s Western emergence … The works presented on this disc cover … almost the whole breadth of the composer’s career … The idiomatic and skilful performances on this release present the listener with a clear opportunity to appreciate the development and gradual maturation of a talented composer’s folk-inflected voice … This is a fine, fine disc of somewhat neglected choral treasures’ (MusicalCriticism.com)
‘There’s so much here to enjoy – and play over again – and it’s remarkable how Stephen Layton and his Holst Singers have so convincingly captured the flavor and character of the music and language – we usually only hear native choirs in this repertoire. The sound, from London’s All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, is just perfect–and Meurig Bowen’s excellent notes complete an all-around first-rate release. This immediately joins my “best discs of the year” list!’ (ClassicsToday.com)
‘No doubt each listener will have favourite moments, but a few of the most distinctive songs include the atmospheric “Singing aboard ship” (1983) – weeping sweethearts left on the shore as their young men are conscripted to fight at sea; the highly evocative “Autumn landscapes” (1964) – rendered with tenderness and subtlety; and the mesmeric “Estonian game songs” (1972), with haunting chants and rich harmonies. The Holst Singers prove to be fine advocates for Tormis, treating his music with the respect it deserves and showing that there is much worth exploring. This release can be warmly recommended’ (ClassicalSource.com)
‘The Holst Singers are a reputable British choir, and they have shown admirable commitment to recording and performing contemporary and neglected works… there’s a great deal of dramatic and dynamic variety under the sure leadership of conductor Stephen Layton, as well as obvious commitment to this exotic material’ (Opera News, USA)