Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Baltic Voices 1
Baltic Voices 3
The Grammy nomination bestowed upon the Baltic Voices 2 album in 2004 pointed to the continuing fascination the Eastern European brand of minimalism held for American audiences. It also showed that this predominantly sacred variety of minimalism did not depend solely on the unique biography and outlook of Arvo Part, for it is the music of Part's successors and of contemporaries he inspired that is heard on this release, not that of the Estonian pioneer himself. Conductor Paul Hillier and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir have, impressively, found general success with an album of almost completely unknown material. The Baltic region is generously defined here to extend as far west as Denmark (Per Norgard's Winter Hymn) and eastward to Russia (Alfred Schnittke's Three Sacred Hymns, which make an ideal stopping-place for the disc). But most of the music is by younger Estonian composers who are clearly within the Part orbit, yet speak with notable clarity in their own voices. Anyone interested in so-called "holy minimalism" will find something to like here. The strongest piece may be by the Russian-Estonian composer Galina Grigorjeva, whose On Leaving (1999) fills out some of the connections between the Part style and Eastern Orthodox church music that have been lurking beneath the surface of this tradition for some years now. Urmas Sisask's Five Songs from Gloria Patri (1988) mounts an extreme stasis of which Part would have been proud: the section entitled "Oremus" (Let us pray) has a text consisting entirely of that single word, distributed through more than eight minutes of shifting textures. The expert treatment of this music by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is matched by Harmonia Mundi's limpid sound. One wouldn't have guessed 20 years ago that there would be a "Part school," yet on the evidence of this fine release that is just what seems to be developing.
All Music Guide
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To the traveller from the West, crossing through Finland or Estonia towards Russia, the intermittent appearance in the landscape of an onion-shaped dome topped by an unfamiliar form of the cross is a reminder of just how far east one has come. The prime building material has become wood or large stone rather than brick, and public signs start to appear in both Cyrillic and the local variant of Finno-Ugrian. It is quite possible to understand neither one of them. A fragment of Swedish may be overheard, and suddenly, even to the non-speaker, there are familiar sounds in the air whose meanings can be comfortingly half guessed at. One notices also a style of architecture and painting which might call to mind the Art Nouveau movement, but seems in these regions to have tapped into deeper Nationalist roots and so to have acquired a more lasting significance than its counterparts further west. Visit the cathedral of St. John in Tampere, for example, or see the paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela and his museum-house of Tarvaspaa on the outskirts of Helsinki. The same impulse flowered also in Russia, where the re-imagining of folk art and medievalism stimulated a renewal of ecclesiastical art, and this in turn impressed itself upon the avant-garde of Malevich and Goncharova.
Because of its size and supposed cultural autonomy, it comes as almost a surprise to realise that Russia is a Baltic state too. Peter the Great confirmed this when he built St. Petersburg in the 18th century as his 'window onto the West,' and although her foothold on the Baltic may appear slight, when a country as vast as Russia wiggles its toe, it creates ripples which spread out into the whole region in many surprising ways - apart from the obvious militaristic one.
A natural exchange of goods and cultural inspiration has always occurred between neighbouring countries around the Baltic. To take one example: the Russian nobility, and artists and composers like Tchaikovsky often spent their summer vacations on the western coast of Estonia, and in the 19th century a railway link was established between St. Petersburg and Haatpsalu, the home town of Cyrillus Kreek (see Baltic Voices 1). (The photo of the Choir on page 14 in this booklet shows them standing in what is known as the Tsar's Station in Haapsalu). Later, the violinist David Oistrakh holidayed at the nearby summer resort town of Parnu, where he established a summer music festival that continues to this day.
But the influence is not all from one direction. For several centuries there was a large Swedish population in western Estonia (where Stockholm is in fact in closer proximity than St, Petersburg), and there still are many local words of Swedish origin. Estonia had been under Swedish rule until it was ceded to Tsarist Russia in 1721. But it was only in 1944, when the Soviet* invaded, that most of the Swedish population emigrated to Sweden - from where some of them are now returning to claim their grandparents' land.
Sometimes the historical process has given one group of people the advantage over another; sometime a more egalitarian kind of fusion has taken place; and sometimes the different forces are content to remain themselves and simply coexist. Throughout the Baltic, what seems here or there to the outsider to be exotic, standing as it were in quotation marks - whether it is a style of window, or a recipe, or a type of hat, or the quality of someone's voice - has often long been rooted in that particular part of the world, and is regarded as perfectly normal by the locals. Then it in one's own expectations that have to be adjusted.
This second CD in the Baltic Voices series concentrates on sacred music. Three religions are represented, or rather the three branches of one religion, Christianity, which are to be found in the Baltic area: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. The works by Schnittke and Grigorjeva each evoke the traditional sound of Russian Orthodox music, though working from two different reference points within that tradition - the late Romantic and the Medieval, respectively. Furthermore, the choice of Schnittke allowed me very conveniently to represent Germany as well, as he became a German citizen and lived the latter part of his life in Hamburg.
Catholicism is represented here by the works of Sisask and Tulev. I suppose Sisask's music must be accounted as Catholic, simply because of its use of Latin and the emphasis of some of his music on Marian texts. His personal reference points are, however, on a different plane altogether, as the note on his piece explains below. Tulevs Catholic focus is more specific in the work heard on this CD, being dedicated to the Brigittine nuns living in Estonia. The Brigittine order was founded by St. Bridget of Sweden in the 14th century and contributed greatly to the culture of Estonia, Scandinavia and Germany. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the order was nearly destroyed when its houses were suppressed and confiscated. In 1911, the modern Brigittine order was founded in Rome, and, in 1942, it was recognized by the Holy See as an offshoot of the ancient order.
Finally, in keeping with the pan-Baltic mission of this series, I have included a work by the Danish composer Per Norgard. This work is not strictly speaking sacred in the sense of 'liturgical' - if we read the note (below) by the poet Ole Sarvig carefully - but its ethical disposition and its hymn-like structure seem to me wholly linked to the Protestant world. Such a work could only have been made in a country which has managed to sustain a tradition of churchgoing and at the same time found a way to link this heritage meaningfully to the modern humanist democracy which pays for its keep.
Western secular humanism and the Russian Orthodox Church lie at opposite ends of numerous spectra, just as they emerge from opposite ends of the Baltic Sea. In all areas of the world we find a similar tug of war between neighbouring heritages and the larger pull of cultural forces from further afield, but in the Baltic there is a unique fusion of west and east, and today the region is enjoying a breath of political fresh air and economic confidence and, most precious of all, tolerance.
- Paul Hillier