As with its two predecessors, Baltic Voices 3 features several CD premieres along with first-rate renditions of important but little-known works from the latter 20th-century, primarily the 1990s. If you’ve been following this excellent series, you know that the works are selected from composers native to the so-called Baltic countries, and this third and final program features composers from Lithuania (Augustinas, Mažulis, Martinaitis), Estonia (Tüür), Denmark (Gudmundsen-Holmgreen), Finland (Saariaho, Bergman), and Poland (Górecki). It also features music that overall employs more “modernist” techniques than we’ve heard so far. And although they may claim to reside under the broad umbrella of “tonalism”, the majority of the works on offer here are not so much about tonality as they are about unique and unusual and dramatic utterances of texts that themselves are often non-traditional in style.
I have to say up front that this program does exactly what it purports to do. It works very well as an exposition of the work of these composers at a particular place and time–and to some extent informs regarding the prevalence of certain styles of choral writing; but it doesn’t promise a relaxing listening experience, and indeed, the aural challenges presented by many of these pieces will be more than enough for most listeners to comfortably process in one sitting. Although this is not necessarily a bad thing, in some cases, where repetitive elements (Holmgreen’s Statements) or long stretches of dissonance and “sound effects” dominate (Saariaho’s Nuits, adieux), the music will seriously try the attention and perhaps the patience even of experienced listeners.
Of course, it’s important and necessary for composers to experiment, to push the edges of the familiar and the possible, and while there’s nothing particularly innovative here–Tüür’s Meditatio, with its tightly structured vocal writing and clever integration of the saxophone timbres and voice-like qualities comes closest–the compositional techniques tend to favor the more extreme expressive elements worked (and overworked) during the last few decades. Examples here are best shown in Saariaho’s Nuits, adieux, originally for voices and electronics (this CD premiere features singers only), where the voices spend lots of time whispering, panting, groaning, and swooping (effects that also make their appearance in different shapes and sizes in several other works), while minimalist mannerisms govern the start/stop, start/stop movement of Holmgreen’s Statements, for women’s voices. This latter work, nearly six minutes’ long, is impressive for its beautiful unison and close-interval singing, and for its powerful ending (that should have come about two minutes sooner).
The opening Trepute Martela (The Stomping Bride) by Vaclovas Augustinas is a wild, dancing celebration driven by relentless percussion and other instruments, including viola da gamba and recorders. Similar in their lively rhythmic character are pieces by Rytis Mažulis and–especially exciting–the Alleluia by Algirdas Martinaitis. Erik Bergman’s Vier Galgenlieder arguably aren’t music at all, but rather his “gallows songs” are for “sprechchor”–and what a smashing job the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir does with these highly dramatic utterances of some very strange texts, from the delightful variety of timbres to the characterful inflection and rhythmic precision. The disc ends with by far the most traditional-sounding, solidly tonal music (a welcome programming decision), Górecki’s Five Kurpian Songs, another CD premiere.
If you know this Estonian choir, you know its reputation for extraordinary vocal ensemble technique and for its particular proficiency in new music. It certainly doesn’t disappoint here, and director Paul Hillier has again chosen repertoire that’s not just a series of highlights but that also makes sense as a program. Yes, it’s a difficult one on many levels, but listeners interested in exploring beyond the choral music world in which most of us mortals reside and perform will be at least enlightened if not compelled to hear more.