Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Rascher Saxophone Quartet
Baltic Voices 1
Baltic Voices 2
Baltic Voices 3 presents eight highly varied and provocative contemporary pieces by leading composers from Lithuania, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, and Poland, all enthusiastically performed by Paul Hillier and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, and various guest artists. Lest this album seem like a collection of chaste a cappella choral works for meditation or "chilling out," it takes off with a bang in Vaclovas Augustinas' boisterous The Stomping Bride (1994) for choir, harpsichord, viola da gamba, recorders, and percussion, and goes on to tweak the ear with such curiosities as the eerie Nuits, adieux (1991, 1996) by Kaija Saariaho, Erik Bergman's raucous and grotesque Vier Galgenlieder, Op. 51b (1960), and Erkki-Sven Tuur's memorably microtonal and haunting Meditatio (2003). But even the quieter pieces, such as Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's matter-of-fact Statements, Rytis Mazulis' agitatedly chanted The dazzled eye lost its speech (1992), and Algirdas Martinaitis' joyfully dissonant Alleluia (1996), are far from serene - only Henryk Gorecki's mild 5 Kurpian Songs (1999) qualifies for that description - so seekers of peaceful background music would do well to listen elsewhere. This album is too interesting and challenging for relaxation, but perhaps just the right thing for fearless ears. Harmonia Mundi's reproduction is excellent, particularly in Tuur's iridescent and multidimensional work.
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
"When one lives far away, one hears only of the major artists in the galaxy and is often satisfied with merely knowing their names; but when one draws closer, the twinkle of stars of the second and third magnitude becomes visible until, finally, one sees the whole constellation - the world is wider and art richer than one had hitherto supposed. "
Thus wrote Goethe in his Italian Journey (visiting an art gallery in Verona) and the comment perfectly sums up my feelings at the conclusion of this series of three CDs devoted to Baltic composers. I am also keenly aware of numerous composers who have not been represented and should have been, not to mention the omission of important works by those who have. The recordings therefore represent an ongoing journey and, like Goethe's travel book, are essentially letters posted to friends at home. My sights are indeed set on other pieces of Baltic music, but these will be presented in different contexts.
Listeners will probably agree that this third CD is the most varied in content. It will always be a leap to go from Gorecki's slow-moving, pan-consonant harmonies to the wailing saxophones and tooth-mark dissonance of Tuur; and I have contrasted Lithuanian minimalism and Holmgreen's constructions in white with two Finnish modernists, though again there is quite a jump from the Francophile intimacies of Saariaho to the Germanic surrealism of Bergman's Morgenstern settings.
Choral music tends to be more conservative in style than instrumental music, mostly for the practical reason that singers enjoy and find it easier to sing music that is rooted in tonality. Many instrumentalists prefer it too, if the truth be known, but it is easier to play difficult notes than to sing them. By sustaining a strong choral tradition, the Baltic area has fostered a continuing respect for tonal music, and when the pendulum of music fashion started to move away from the avant-gardism of the 1960s and 70s, many Baltic composers found themselves on the crest of a waves the obvious examples include Part, Vasks, Gorecki, and Tormis. But it would paint a very false picture indeed to suggest that the region has ignored modernism, either generally or even specifically in the choral sphere. To some extent this CD will redress that balance. However, if I have favoured the more tonal styles, this is because there are many more composers who have produced fresh and exciting choral music in that language, than those using a more experimental vocal style or a more instrumental idiom. It is interesting, moreover, to note that those who are successful at bridging this gap are usually themselves singers or have strong choral-conducting experience.
The Baltic Voices of my title are not only the composers who wrote the music, but also the singers who perform it. Music still enjoys a privileged position in Estonian life, but in the post-Soviet era there have been many changes, and as Western influences grow stronger and stronger, it is clear that the intimate world of Estonian music, which was its strength, is now under some strain, and the process of adjustment is sometimes painful and even wasteful. I must say, however, that the high quality of its musicians, the composers especially, remains incredible for such a tiny population. One of the groups at the heart of this musical microcosm is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir - though of course, through touring, their "public" is international. Every time I conduct the Choir, I am reminded how privileged I am. Their unique timbre, their multifaceted musicianship, and their resilience and commitment in performance, all come together to create a powerful entity. The individual singers who make up this wonderful group deserve every recognition that comes their way. Several of them have been in the Choir for nearly twenty-five years and have given their entire careers to it; others, of course, have joined much more recently, bringing new energies and ideas with them, and it is this balance of tradition and c lunge that provides the vitality to sustain the Choir, allowing it to mature without growing old!
The central Baltic experiences have to do with land and water (whether coast or lakeside), darkness and light, the midsummer bonfire and the sauna. In the middle of the Baltic Sea lie the Aland islands, scattered between Sweden and Finland like a broken necklace. As I flew over them earlier this year (to give a concert in Mariehamm) it was impossible to tell where the land ended and the sea began, everything was frozen over and white. We saw a car driving in the middle of a field and then realised it was in fact driving over the sea ice. On one of these islands a few years ago lived a writer, Tove Jansson, whose books sum up for me the Baltic idea - the realities of the place, of course, but also the dreams they give rise to. Here, from Moominpappa goes to sea (1974), is a passage about the end of summer:
'I thought it was about time we started having a lamp now that the evenings are drawing in. At least I felt so this evening,' said Moominmamma.
Moominpappa said: 'You've put an end to the summer. No lamps should be lit until summer is really over.'
'Well, it'll have to be autumn then,' said Moominmamma in her quiet way.
The lamp sizzled as it burned. It made everything seem close and safe, a little family circle they all knew and trusted. Outside this circle lay everything that was strange and frightening, and the darkness seemed to reach higher and higher and further and further away, right to the end of the world.
'In some families, it's the father who decides when its time to light the lamp,' muttered Moominpappa into his tea.
- Paul Hillier