Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Theatre of Voices, Yxus Ensemble
Paul Hillier (conductor)
Conrad Steinmann (recorder)
Ondine ODE1245-2

Familiar yet strange, archaic but modern, these deeply felt choral pieces by Galina Grigorjeva are brought radiantly to life in this magnificent recording.

If you are unfamiliar with the music of the Estonian composer Galina Grigorjeva (born 1962), these beautiful new recordings will come as a revelation. But then if you did know her music, you’d have bought this album already – it’s that good. With a sound world that in places seems to contemplate the immensity of the cosmos, it’s an engrossing and richly rewarding experience, and it’s brought radiantly to life on this album with fine solo performances and immaculate ensemble work under the conductor Paul Hillier.

The album Nature Morte presents a survey of Grigorjeva’s music from the cycle Svatjki (1997/2004) written during her postgraduate years at the Estonian Academy of Music to the more recent Salve Regina (2013). Grigorjeva’s music is difficult to pigeon-hole; it is steeped in the traditions of both Russian Orthodox music and early European polyphony but at times this is combined with a more modernist sensibility such as in three pieces which comprise the large-scale Nature Morte for mixed choir (2008). As to be expected, much of the music has an ethereal quality to it with wandering melodic lines interweaving and joining over sustained chords like gentle curls of smoke from a flickering candle; elsewhere in a quite different dynamic, repeated rhythmic motifs in the lower or upper voices relentlessly propel the music forward. Her use of the voices too is remarkable, sustained voices seem to mimic the different sounds of organ pipes and bourdens (drones); solitary voices can be suggestive of plaintive reed instruments.

A good example of Grigorjeva’s method is in the languorous but passionate Salve Regina for vocal and string quartet (2013), its archaic feel belied by the exquisite textures and colorations. It’s a moving work which bears repeated playing. In a different style, the six pieces which comprise Svatjki are mostly joyful works as befitting the Christmas theme and contain robust rhythmic elements, declamatory voices and emphatic conclusions.

In the most starkly different (or ‘modern’) piece, the first movement of Nature Morte, an extraordinary soundscape is conjured up. It includes the familiar sustained and layered voices, and motor rhythms from low voices but with eruptions of incessant babble, snatched words and fragments, whispering and even loud blowing. While not everyone will warm to this piece, its dramatic power is undeniable. Compelling too is the Lament (2000) for solo recorder. Reminiscent of bird song, it’s a impressive display, ultimately conveying a deep sense of loneliness. The final work, In Paridisum for mixed choir (2012), has a tangible sense of resignation and makes a fitting end to this remarkable album.

If you associate choral music with glacially cold churches, uncomfortable seats and awkward silences, the warmth and mastery of these performances will win you over. The recording quality too is exceptional and the acoustic generous, comfortably accommodating the tiniest whisper to the loudest outburst. The album contains background notes on the music and musicians as well as full texts for the works.


Performance: 5 stars
Recording: 5 stars

Kevin Painting
Header image coutesy of Ondine. Painting by Marina Bitter.