Baltic Voices, Vol 1
This is the start of a three-year project in which Paul Hillier is to explore the choral repertoire from lands around the Baltic. It is a rich tradition, euphonious and for the most part proudly rooted in national folk idioms, and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, of which Hillier is artistic director, bring to it the pure, focused tone and expressive fervour for which they are justly famed.
Lovers of Anglican choral music should feel instantly at home with the selection from Cyrillus Kreek’s Psalms of David (1923), at the same time as relishing those moments when the textures acquire a Rachmaninovian depth of field. His fellow-countryman Veijo Tormis, undisputed king of the Estonian choral tradition, is represented by six Latvian Bourdon Songs, whose sung drones propel us back through the centuries to a time when folk and sacred music could be imagined growing from the same stem – rather more rewarding than Arvo Pärt’s ‘which was the son of’, a presumably tongue-in-cheek setting of the passage in St Luke’s gospel tracing Jesus’ genealogy back through 75 generations to God.
From Finland, the four pieces in Rautavaara’s 1973 Suite de Lorca are little gems, economical and nicely contrasted. More ambitious are the two works by the Swede, Sven-David Sandström. Hear my prayer, O Lord gradually dissolves the Purcell anthem of that name into a more contemporary language, without losing its essential lamenting character. Es ist genug, Herr, blends quotes from a Swedish folksong and from a Buxtehude Cantata and once again skilfully moves away from and back to those basic materials.
At 15 minutes the longest piece here is Vasks’ Dona nobis pacem, where the choir is joined by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Despite Vasks’ considerable reputation this struck me as small beer beside some of his Latvian contemporaries. I hope Hillier will find room in future volumes for the extraordinary work of Maija Einfelde, for instance. At any rate, the quality of most of the music here, and of all the singing, demands the warmest of welcomes. The recording captures the superbly balanced and blended sound in a natural-seeming ambience; and Hillier himself supplies the booklet essay, recounting his personal encounters with the Baltic choral tradition and succinctly introducing each of the composers.