A New Joy: Orthodox Christmas
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, dir Paul Hillier
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907410, £13.99

“A new joy is in the air”, proclaims the Ukrainian carol that comes about halfway through this imaginative disc of music associated with the Orthodox observance of Christmas. It is one of several pieces that attest to the influence of folksong in their melodic inflections, other affecting examples being The Angels Exclaimed, Oh, What a Wonder! and, with joyous choral bongs and tinklings, Bells Rang Early in Jerusalem.

The most familiar item in this selection will probably be Tchaikovsky’s Legend, but the style of the rest of this programme, impressively and sensitively sung by the unaccompanied Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, will strike a chord with anybody familiar with the resonances of Orthodox church music.

There are several anthems by Alexander Kastalsky, who devised the sort of sumptuous, richly varied choral “orchestration” that was emulated by Rachmaninov in his All-night Vigil, and by Georgiy Izvekov in his contemplative nine-movement Festive Canon for the Nativity of Christ, here recorded for the first time. That most celebrated component of Slavic singing – the incredibly deep bass voice – also has its place here in Kastalsky’s When Augustus Ruled Alone upon Earth and in the chant Blessed is the Man, a sonorous coda to a disc that is both haunting and uplifting.

Geoffrey Norris