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Andres UIBO (b.1956)
Antiphons (2005) [10:43]
Veljo TORMIS (b.1930)
At the Crossroads (1991) [9:27]
Tower Bell in my Village (1978) [14:29]
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)

Kontakion (1996) [3:32]
Ode VI (1996) [10:12]
Prayer after the Canon (1996) [14:15]
Orthodox Singers/Valery Petrov
rec. March 2007, Keila Newand – Apostolic Church, Estonia
TROUBADISC TRO-CD 01432 [62:42]

Experience Classicsonline

To the rest of the west, Estonian choral music has been pretty much dominated by the name Arvo Pärt for the last decade and more. It doesn’t take much exploration to come up with some equally powerful composer however, though I had never come across Andres Uibo until now. An organist and conductor, Uibo is an energetic promoter of Estonian music abroad. His Antiphons were composed especially for the Orthodox Singers, and follows the tradition of performing psalms during the Orthodox liturgy. As such, the music gives us little by way of a ‘new sound’, especially when compared with Pärt’s own established treatment of this kind of music. The Antiphons are however effectively meditative and reflective, and have their own sense of timeless atmosphere.

Like Pärt, Veljo Tormis is another giant in the Estonian musical firmament, and his more distinctive style is immediately apparent from the start of At the Crossroads. The text is from a medieval epic Russian poem, the title of which alludes to the directions ancient character Ilya Muromets is given by a roadside stone - the choices of which seem to provide an intractable problem. The pulsing accompaniments and primal melodic shapes in the piece build slowly to a grand climax and a beautiful conclusion – the open intervals in the music refusing however to resolve into anything like a closed cadence. Tower Bell in my Village opens with; yes, you guessed it, the chimes of a bell. Sung in English, and with an English spoken text, there are some inflections and emphases which take a little getting used to, but the piece is actually quite a moving comment on the changes of modern times, a strange kind of surrealist nostalgia, and a dreamlike state of living. The sung voices provide a slowly changing but distinctive backdrop for the speaker over five parts, which create subtle changes in the colour and rhythmic variety in the voices. I can understand why the translation was used for this recording, but can sense that something essential is lost from the rhythms in both the speech of the speaker and those of the choir in this English version. The directness of Tormis’s musical language allied to his uncompromising message is however a strong clue to the popularity of his work in Estonia, as well as abroad.

Anyone recording Arvo Pärt these days has to climb the mountain of a catalogue which is inhabited by the likes of the Hilliard Ensemble with Tõnu Kaljuste, Stephen Layton’s Polyphony, and Paul Hillier’s recordings with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The three Pärt pieces here come from his Kanon Pokajanen, the complete version of which is already well served by an ECM two-disc release with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the noble direction of Tõnu Kaljuste. The Orthodox Singers do well enough, but I’m afraid that their singing of these pieces is a litmus test of their performances on the rest of the disc. I find their sound rather woolly and soft-edged, lacking in the real dynamic contrasts of colour which the best Estonian vocalists seem able to produce. The recording is good enough however, and agreed, much of the music is gentle and contemplative, but the choir on this disc doesn’t ‘grip’ me in the way so many others do. There are some moments of precarious intonation as well, especially at extremes of range, and the choir’s generally dolorous tones made me feel a bit depressed, if the truth be known.

The Orthodox Singers are to be applauded for giving us a few rarely heard pieces on this release, and I do appreciate their technical abilities in terms of creating a genuinely soft dynamic and an atmosphere of religious devotion. Estonian choral music goes way beyond Arvo Pärt, and Paul Hillier’s ‘Baltic Voices’ series is an excellent place to start such an exploration. This disc will most certainly not put you off, but it may not inspire you in quite the same way either.

Dominy Clements

see also review by Jonathan Woolf





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