Songs from the heart
Kultuur 27 Oct 2014 Otepää SlimEWR
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Juhan. Riho Sibul, Jaak Sooäär, Henno Kelp, Andrus Lillepea. Ava Muusika 014, 2013

2013 marked the centenary of the death of Juhan Liiv. Liiv, without any doubt, belongs in the pantheon of patriotic poets. Many popular Estonian songs have taken his poems and set them to music – „Ma lille sideme võtaks”, „Ta lendab mesipuu poole” are but two examples that are almost de rigueur in any choir’s repertoire. Liiv had a serious and gloomy side as well. „Kui tume veel kauaks ka sinu maa”, inspired Roman Toi to write a brilliant score for male chorus, a case where the passion of the words is magnified by an extraordinary melody.

But these are the best known of the poet’s works. Liiv was a man who loved his country and nature, but struggled for most of his life with psychological issues. He did not lead a long and happy life, dying in poverty at the young age of 47. The line between genius and insanity is often difficult to draw; Liiv seems to be one case, where it is difficult to delineate or categorize with conviction. Yet, without a doubt, no reader of his poetry will remain unmoved and his work has withstood the vagaries of the passage of time.

The slender one heard of a project called Juhan last year, a recording of a number of Liiv’s poems set to music. Thanks to a good-hearted friend the slimster finally has a copy of the CD recorded by luminaries Riho Sibul, Jaak Sooäär, Henno Kelp and Andrus Lillepea. It was worth the wait to hear this recording, knowing little about which poems were chosen.

Jaak Sooäär was the composer, finding melodies for 11 of Liiv’s poems. It must be emphasized, that almost without exception these are not well known poems of Liiv’s, the majority not even found in my collections of his poetry. This adds an extra nuance to the CD, and thankfully Sooäär has seen fit to include the text of the poems in the accompanying booklet.

The first two selections, „Hoolitsejatele” (for the caregivers) and „Meeleheitel” (despondently desolate), are an indication of Sooäär’s approach. The love of country and others first, followed by mental anguish sums up Liiv in a nutshell.

The slender one is a big fan of Sibul’s, whose vocals are unique and identifiable. (Sibul also provides excellent axe work here on electric, bass and acoustic guitar). However, he remains best as a hard rocker, and on some of the few ballads on this CD he does not quite deliver as well as perhaps some softer voiced crooners, such as Tõnu Raadik, or even, for heavens sake, Ott Lepland might have. Raadik, by the way, has recorded albums that feature a number of vocalists – perhaps Sooäär could have considered this approach? But this is a very minor quibble, as Sibul acquits himself very well indeed, as is always the case.

Sooäär also provides electric guitar work on the recording, but it is his Hammond B3 organ playing, an instrument that is instantly recognizable, which adds plenty of colour to the melodies. Henno Kelp is faultless on bass guitar, and the incomparable Andrus Lillepea rounds out the rhythm section on drums.

It is hard to single out specific cuts on this CD. It needs, as a significant project, to be taken as an entirety, a successful whole. But on first listening „Hiljem minevik” (the later past) stood out as a prototypical Sibul-rocker, tailored for his unique abilities. “Kalevi uni” (The slumber of Kalev) is another rocker, with powerful lyrics, the poet bemoans the existence of enemies on Estonia’s soil and that the national hero of the country is in deep sleep at a time when his people need him. The poet is sleeping as well, hoping for an awakening of the comatose fatherland. An excellent poem; a very strong and even exquisite composition.

And for my money (OK, this CD was a gift…) the final selection on the recording, „Aukiitus olgu igavest“ (eternal reverence) is the pearl here, one of the most sensitive and touching ballads that these ears have heard in the recent past. Here Sibul’s raspy rock’n’roll voice is perfect, the gentle, pious lyrics receive greater impact thanks to the nature of his vocal chords. Sooäär’s melody cannot but fail to stir anybody’s heart. Indeed, so much of Liiv’s poetry is genuine and sincere, that „Juhan“ can best be described as a collection of songs from the heart, and it is a valuable addition to the library of excellent Estonian popular music. Highly recommended.
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