Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir – Baltic Voices 3 (Harmonia Mundi)

Readers may recall how irritated and disappointed we were about the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir‘s program at the Proms in August. Though we didn’t say it at the time, a large part of our disappointed stemmed from the failure of the concert to live up to the artistic standards set by the ensembles phenomenal CDs of mostly recent choral compositions, Baltic Voices 1 and 2. The third and final installment in this series, Baltic Voices 3, was released a week ago. In the liner notes, the choir’s markedly un-Estonian director, Paul Hillier, claims that this disc is the “most varied in content” of the three. He could have added that it is also the most ass-kickingly fantastic.

Choral music suffers from a markedly lower reputation among those who fancy themselves interested in “serious” music — it is, even in Britain, associated with amateur performers and dumbed-down musical style. Even the more light-weight pieces on this disc, however, demand to be taken seriously. The oldest piece on the album, Erik Bergman’s Vier Galgenlieder for “speaking choir” from 1960, consists of four short vignettes of shouting, chanting, and overly-theatrical reciting. They sound very… well, very 1960, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. But it’s entertaining and occasionally quite witty.

By way of contrast, second-oldest piece on the album, Statements from 1969 by Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen (a composer we had never heard of) is also very of-its-time, but displays the kind of cool, conceptual rigor that makes us go weak in the knees — almost entirely consisting of a single musical line, with fragmentary musical material systematically repeated and recombined. The choir performs it with just the right blend of stillness and urgency. Perfect.

It’s quite a leap to the newest work on the disc Meditatio by Erkki-Sven Tüür, written in 2003 and recorded here for the first time. (It is wrong how much we enjoy saying his name out loud?) The work is eighteen minutes of ecstatic Christian prose text in Latin set to wailing dissonances and accompanied by a saxophone quartet. Whenever the piece threatens to become a little too rambling, some strong musical idea jerks us back into the work’s forceful trajectory. It is solid, dynamic, and dramatic all at once.

Another world premiere recording is Kaija Saariaho’s Nuits, Adieux. (We always refer to this composer in writing as “Saaariaaahoo.”) She originally wrote this piece for four solo singers and electronics, but then crafted a new version in which she transcribed the electronic sounds for a live chorus. There is no way that this should work, but it does. The hissing, buzzing and gasping of the choir are a mile away from the wit and humor of Bergman’s spoken effects — rather than language deformed into music, Saariaho creates the effect of sound coalescing into language before your ears.

Other pieces on the disc are more conventionally “choral” — Górecki’s folk song settings, Martinaitis’s Alleluia — but performed with no less commitment and subtlety for that. The chorus’s sound is something very special, both pitch-perfect and warmly expressive where required. The word “adult” repeatedly springs to mind. And it seems to us as if there is something ineffable about their sound which is recognizable whether they’re whispering, singing, or screaming. Do not miss this. (G)