The three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have produced some very fine choirs indeed, and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is one of the finest of all. Now conducted by Daniel Reuss, whose c.v. includes the post of Chief Conductor of the RIAS Kammerchor, for the six preceding years the group sang under the direction of Paul Hillier. He was responsible for the three superb Harmonia Mundi albums entitled Baltic Voices, which for many collectors will have been their introduction to the riches of the choral music of the region, and which form only a small part of this choir’s vast and prestigious discography.
The present collection is a reissue of a disc first issued in 2009. The Mendelssohn pieces, most of which will be familiar to choral music enthusiasts, receive outstanding performances from this marvellous choir. We need not concern ourselves with such matters as intonation, balance and blend, so accomplished is the singing. The words are beautifully clear, and, to my ears, the German is idiomatic. Reuss paces each of these works to perfection. Most of the pieces are psalm settings, though the lovely trio for women’s voices, “Hebe deine Augen”, is taken from Elijah, and Mendelssohn incorporated his motet for double choir Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen into the same work. A curiosity is that the marvellous setting of Psalm 43, Richte mich, Gott, is sung in a version I have never heard before. Many of the differences between what is heard here and my Breitkopf score are only minor, but at other points the voicing is significantly different, and there are even some bars added here and there. The booklet gives Carus as the publishers, but consulting the Carus website shows editions identical to my own, though entitled, interestingly, “First Version”. It is fascinating to hear, but slightly perturbing for those who know the piece well. The performance, like all the others, is magnificent. Listen to the subtle way the conductor ensures that the radiance written into the music at the phrase “Sende dein Licht” appears only gradually, thereby increasing its dramatic effect. Several of the Mendelssohn pieces feature solo voices, and given the overall homogeneity of the choral sound it is interesting to observe how many of these voices have their own quite individual timbre and character.
The music of Cyrillus Kreek will be less familiar. Born in Western Estonia, he showed musical talent at an early age and received his musical training at the St Petersburg Conservatory. He returned to Estonia to live a modest life in the town of Haapsalu, which is where this disc was recorded. His catalogue of works is quite vast, and is only gradually becoming known. The scores of several of the pieces on this disc are available in a single, slim edition published by SP Muusikaprojekt. This is fascinating and extremely beautiful music. The language is conservative and the composer’s voice sober, yet the music is highly original and unlike any other. It is perfectly conceived for choir, rich and sonorous, and, for choristers with a reasonable ear and with sufficient tenors and basses available – there are frequent divisions, and the composer is clearly attracted to the sound of men’s voices – it is often not very difficult. The Estonian choir is, naturally, totally at home in the idiom – though there is not the slightest sign of their being any less comfortable in the Mendelssohn! – which is interesting given that the conductor is Dutch. And all the more so since three of the psalm settings here also appear on the first of the Baltic Voices albums mentioned above, conducted, in that case, by an Englishman! That disc opens with Kreek’s gorgeous setting of Psalm 104, and if you are unsure as to whether the composer will appeal to you, I urge you to start with that piece here too. You’ll be instantly hooked (or I’m a Dutchman.) Hillier is slightly more romantic, more expansive and flexible, that Reuss, but there is no question of any preference. In any event, hearing this choir in almost any repertoire tends to have the same effect as hearing the music of Cyrillus Kreek – once you have experienced it you immediately start to look for more.
The choir sounds wonderful in the church acoustic, and the booklet has notes in English, as well as translations of the texts to help you with the sung German and Estonian. This really is not to be missed.