After an absorbing rethinking of Stockhausen's Stimmung, Paul Hillier continues his exploration of the outer reaches of vocal sound. With his other group, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, he commissioned a new cycle of pieces on texts from the Song of Songs from Estonian composer Toivo Tulev. Songs, premiered in 2005, uses mostly an English translation of the Canticum Canticorum, with macaronic snippets of the text in other languages, as well as excerpts of the intense spiritual poetry of St. John of the Cross in English translation. Tulev's setting joins a distinguished tradition of sacred music based on the love poetry attributed to King Solomon, and the poetry of John of the Cross, set in dialogue between the soul and God as passionate lovers, echoes the most common Christian tradition of interpretation of the Song of Songs.
Toivo Tulev, Songs, R. Blaze, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, P. Hillier
(released October 14, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807452
Tulev was born in 1958, and his background -- he was a student of Gregorian chant and medieval polyphony and was once a member of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir -- means that much of his music feels like it belongs in the company of the holy minimalists like Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki. Tulev also studied electronic music at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, and Songs has much in common with the work of spectralists like Kaija Saariaho. The work was recorded in the space for which it was specifically designed, with performers arranged in the shape of a cross within Tallinn's Niguliste, or Church of St. Nicholas. The work is static, perhaps to a fault, but the interplay of textures -- opposing instrumental groups, two split choruses that often dissolve into the lingering sound of a third chorus and organ (played by the composer himself) in the distance -- within the acoustic space provide plenty of interest. This is a worthy introduction to Tulev's music and to the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.
Jens managed to sneak this recording into his list of the ten best recordings of 2005, when it was originally released. This scrumptious, meditative disc has apparently gone out of print, but it has just been re-released, although only as a hybrid SACD. The resulting elevated price tag means it is probably better to seek out a second-hand original release for the regular audio CD version. (You may recognize the cover art as almost exactly the same cropped detail from a 15th-century icon of John the Baptist, with just a slightly different color adjustment, used just a month before this re-release by EMI for a Stravinsky disc.) Both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, in my estimation, had greater success writing for voices than for instruments alone, and the operas and songs of both composers are more welcomed by my ears. That exception extends especially to the sacred music of Rachmaninov, composed in the Orthodox tradition, in which his saccharine tendencies are embittered by a backward-looking austerity in the incorporation of Orthodox chant and choral practice. This recording is not perfect, as there are a few odd intonational quirks here and there, but the stunning range of vocal ambitus and dynamics and the overall warmth of tone are simply gorgeous to hear.
Rachmaninov, Vespers and Complete All-Night Vigil, I. Oja, M. Turi, V. Miller, T. Kogerman, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, P. Hillier
(2005, re-released August 12, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807504
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of their founding director, Tõnu Kaljuste, will return to the Clarice Smith Center next month (November 9, 3 pm).