TALLINN - In any musical foray into the realm of the divine, there's just no substitute for the sound of the human voice. That's the conclusion I reached when listening to "Baltic Voices 2," (Harmonia Mundi) a moving and expertly crafted album performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the leadership of its British-born chief conductor, Paul Hillier.
Released in August, this is the second volume of the three-CD series "Baltic Voices," whose aim, as the title suggests, is to serve up some of the more interesting choral offerings of the Baltic Sea region. In all cases the composers themselves are contemporary, but their works are firmly rooted in national or even regional traditions.
"Baltic Voices 2" focuses specifically on sacred music, compositions in some way connected to the hymns and prayers of the area's three branches of Christianity - Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran. Each of the five composers represented, two Estonians, a Ukrainian, a Volga-German and a Dane, in his own way weaves older religious forms of expression into a fresh, new work. And the result is superb.
It opens with five selections from Gloria Patri, a collection of 24 sacred songs by Estonian composer and amateur astronomer Urmas Sisask. Though decidedly religious in its text, the music itself is based on Sisask's "planet scale," a set of theoretical values that the composer derived from the orbits of planets in our solar system.
This cosmic connection may or may not explain the otherworldly quality of the compositions, but I found these works the most memorable and thought provoking of the album. The second track, "Omnis una" is a haunting and wonderfully constructed piece, and the fourth, "Oremus" (Let us Pray) has a powerful, angelic quality, as if expressing an ascent into heaven.
Next comes the recording premiere of Toivo Tulev's "And Then in Silence There With me be Only You." Tulev, who himself sang with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in the 1980s, studied Gregorian chant, hints which are evident in the work. Mostly though, I found the nearly 14-minute track to be full of surprises - unexpected musical twists and turns that gave it a satisfying amount of surprise.
While the Catholic influence clearly rings through the Estonian works, Lutheran traditions are represented by one of Denmark's most famous composers, Per Norgard. His "Winter Hymn" is not in fact a hymn but is based on a hymn-like poem by fellow Dane Ole Sarvig. At times subdued and pensive, and at others unexpectedly uplifting, the work is positively enchanting.
Powerful, bass-heavy mantras, liturgical harmonies based on 15th century - 17th-century Orthodox prayers and, in places, even flute music make up Estonian-Ukrainian composer Galina Grigorjeva's contribution. These five tracks, collectively titled "On Leaving," are the album's clearest link to Russian choral traditions, as well as its second recording premiere. Also Orthodox, but more flowing and perhaps more Western in their sound are Alfred Schnittke's "Three Sacred Hymns," short, interconnected works in a late romantic style that provide what I found to be a soothing and positive conclusion to the collection.
Without a doubt, "Baltic Voices 2," with its fresh, daring interpretations of age-old religious themes, excellent recording quality and extensive sleeve notes in English, French and German, is something that any classical music fan, and in particular choral music fan, will not want to miss.