No musical realm is more alive and fertile regarding the production and performance of new works than that of choral and vocal music. Of course, much of it tends to be highly imitative/derivative/predictable–mostly for reasons of singability–but the really interesting new(er) stuff shows that even with the physical limitations of voices and singing technique, and even within the tonal world, there’s still lots of room for originality. And because so much new choral music is written and performed every year, choral music fans are some of the most experienced, adventurous, savvy, and open-minded listeners who, while they appreciate uniqueness and experimentation, also are intolerant of music that fails to engage, entertain, move, or otherwise make a discernible point relative to its particular text choices and musical setting.

In the second installment of their Baltic Voices series, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and conductor Paul Hillier focus on sacred music from Estonia, the Ukraine, Denmark, and Russia, all of it written during the past 20 years. Two of the works–Galina Grigorjeva’s On Leaving and Toivo Tulev’s And then in silence there with me be only You–are world-premiere recordings, and the rest likely will be new to the ears of most North American listeners. And for all discerning choral music lovers, there’s good news: the pieces on display here are not only well worth hearing but in several cases merit regular inclusion on concert programs. And at the very least, the recording should win deserved attention for Estonian composers Urmas Sisask and Toivo Tulev and renewed regard for Per Norgard’s choral works.

Although I would hesitate to use the word “masterpiece” for anything included here, I would apply the words “beautiful” and “tuneful” and “affecting” to the five selections from Sisask’s Gloria Patri, which the choir sings with ardent enthusiasm and, in the slow, quiet “Oremus” movement, with patiently, perfectly sustained harmonic tension and (as everywhere) dead-on intonation. Tulev’s And then in silence is very different in its sometimes quirky melodic leaps, more dissonant harmonies, and inventive use of sectional contrasts and extremes of choral registers.

Galina Grigorjeva’s On Leaving consists of five sections and lasts nearly 22 mostly-interesting minutes. It’s firmly rooted in Russian Orthodox choral style, variously employing modal melody and harmony, thick, bass-heavy textures, and harmonized and unison chant, adding a few more modern touches including an improvisatory-sounding flute (in Ode 1) and frequent washes of colorful dissonance. Per Norgard’s Winter Hymn is “an arrangement of the composer’s Winter Cantata” by Swedish conductor Gunnar Eriksson, and it’s a gem, a masterful musical realization of poet Ole Sarvig’s English version of his original poem “The Year”. The work’s essential appeal comes from its varied and skillfully-wrought harmony, imaginatively combining the traditonal with more modern structures and occasionally foiling the expected functional relationships. It makes for nine minutes of restrained yet memorable, moody drama. Schnittke’s Three Sacred Hymns are relatively short but densely packed, soulful expressions born of Russian church music tradition.

Once again, Hillier and his first-rate choir touch us with exemplary renditions of rare yet extraordinary repertoire that truly does make its respective points, both spiritual and musical–recorded in very fine, well-balanced sound that only loses detail in the most impossibly thick-textured passages. This sort of willingness to investigate and prepare new music for performance demands continued support and encouragement by all who love singing. On to Volume 3!




Five songs from Gloria Patri (1988)
And then in silence there with me be only You (2002)
Winter Hymn (1976/84)
On Leaving (1999)
Three Sacred Hymns (1983/84)

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Paul Hillier


Harmonia Mundi- 907331(CD)