Robin Blaze, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier – Tiovo Tulev: Songs (2008) MCH SACD ISO + DSF DSD64 + Hi-Res FLAC

Robin Blaze, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier – Tiovo Tulev: Songs (2008)
SACD ISO (2.0/MCH): 3,31 GB | 24B/88,2kHz Stereo FLAC: 1,07 GB | Full Artwork
Label/Cat#: Hamronia Mundi USA # HMU 807452 | Country/Year: Europe 2008 | 3% Recovery Info
Genre: Classical, Sacred | Style: Present 21th Century, Vocal

For me, one of the highlights of the 2008 Edinburgh Festival was a concert given by the Esthonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, directed by Paul Hillier in their core repertoire of Baltic music. Many will be familiar with the choir from their series of Baltic Voices discs, and their reputation for precision, virtuosity and a uniquely vibrant timbre was amply displayed at that concert – as it is on this recording.

This present disc features Esthonian composer Tuivo Tulev (born 1958), a significant voice amongst contemporary Esthonian composers. He was himself a member of the EPC Choir, which stands him in good stead for choral writing. The disc features a major work commissioned from him by Hillier in 2004-5, ‘Songs’. The collaged texts are drawn from the ancient Hebrew erotic poetry embedded in the Old Testament and called “The Song of Songs” by Luther, in both English and Latin translations, together with two poems in Spanish by St John of the Cross. In this respect, the work is a development of Britten’s eclectic multi-lingual vocal settings. The music presents the tension between the eroticism of the poetry and the attempts made by the Christian Church to express its meaning in spiritual terms.

The work is polychoral, and almost made for multichannel recordings. It was premièred in St Nicholas Church in Tallinn (also the recording venue for this disc) and distributes the forces of the EPC Choir, soloists, the Talinn Chamber Orchestra, two organs and synthesizer within the airy acoustic space of the building. Tulev disposes these forces in the form of a cross, a diagram of which is found in the booklet. To left and right are choirs each with a small orchestra behind them, at rearmost centre is a coro lontano (far/distant), and moving towards the listener, strings, soloists, the conductor, and ginally an organ lontano, together forming the upright of the cross. The spatial effects are superbly caught by the Harmonia Mundi engineers, placing the listener securely in the reverberant space of the church so that the deep perspective of the musical placements adds considerably to the cumulative emotional effect of the piece.

‘Songs’ is in 8 sections, all of them slow, requiring tremendous control by the conductor and fanatical precision by the performers, an extraordinarily difficult and challenging work for both singers and instrumentalists. It is underpinned by Tulev’s being strongly influenced by Gregorian chant, sometimes overt, sometimes cryptic. The music is awe-inspiring and often terrifyingly beautiful in its measured progress. a psychological study as effective (and disturbing) as Richard Strauss’ portrayal of Salome in her own struggle between sexuality and spirituality. The small battery of percussion provides many atmospheric noises, and at some places startling outbursts, while the Duduk (a far Eastern folk woodwind instrument) casts a plangent spell. The instrumentalists are required to improvise embellishments to their parts, as in Early Music. Solo parts are all excellently delivered, particularly Robin Blaze’s flexible and subtly modulated counter-tenor. Because of the spatial separations within the ample acoustic, and given Tulev’s dense scoring, it is not always possible to hear the words clearly, but this is no reflection either on the singer’s articulation or the recording. The sessions were attended by the composer, so presumably the sound represents his intentions.

There is no doubt that this is a powerful and significant work. Its slow progress is mesmeric, the tension throughout like a coiled spring, but there is no final resolution of this tension. Since the conflict lies between profane sexuality and mystic spirituality, how could there be?

For the listener to this disc, perhaps an emotional resolution comes with the balm of the following piece, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ from the Lutheran Psalter, a text also used by Bach. Tulev’s simple but exquisite flowing melody is heard first from the counter-tenor, then by the piano and violin; a perfect foil to the complex and intense ‘Songs’. At the end of the disc, comes a second, extended version of this work, using a string orchestra, violin solo and female voices, which offers solace and consolation in its steady strophic verses.

‘Rejoice, Rejoice’ was a commission for the 2006 State Visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Estonia. It uses a compilation of lines and phrases from Thomas Trahern’s (1636?-1674) prose poems. and is set for the EPC Choir a cappella. This uses more overt dissonance in a chiming fashion within a very complex texture, requiring pinpoint articulation and secure intonation, and is given an uplifting performance here.

‘Leave alas this tormenting’ also takes an Elizabethan text, this time from Thomas Morley’s madrigal of the same name. Another colourful piece, it is set for a percussion trio and solo soprano, countertenor, and an SATB choir which is pre-recorded. The soprano ends by singing with the recorded voices – presence and absence, as it were, symbolic of the lost lover. A haunting performance, with a surprising mixture of superbly recorded percussion sounds to set against the voices.

‘Jusquez au printemps’ takes its text from a chanson by another madrigalist, Josquin Desprez. and allows the a cappella choir to sing about the coming of Spring, bearing in mind those long Baltic winters. It has a soaring melody with layers of dense harmonies and stratospheric soprano lines, showing off the supreme precision and breath control of this choir, all founded on their richly resonant basses.

Harmonia Mundi sets high production values with this Digipak. There is a fine essay about Torvo Tulev and the music on this disc by Paul Hillier himself (who is the dedicatee of ‘Songs’). He even includes an amusing anecdote concerning a question asked of the composer by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at the reception where ‘Rejoice, Rejoice’ was sung. A substantial excerpt is given frpm an illuminating interview with Tulev; there are abundant photographs of the composer at the sessions and of course all the texts in English, French and German.

Sonically this is a splendid disc; in multichannel making the most of the rich acoustic signature of the church to add bloom to the voices and instruments, and presenting the spatial organisation of ‘Songs’ in a unique and convincing way. In stereo, as expected, the deep perspectives of this work are compressed, and some of its impact lessened.

‘Songs’ is a significant work which showcases the manifold talents of the EPC Choir, and together with the smaller pieces shows Tulev to have a formidable intellect and grasp of a varied set of compositional styles. It certainly repays repeated listening. Although all of the pieces are on the slow side, the colours and stylistic changes keep interest alive. Lovers of fine choral singing and contemporary vocal music will surely enjoy this fine disc, which ably demonstrates the versatility of Hillier and his forces.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and


1 By Night 3:05
2 Where have you hidden, Beloved 2:24
3 This life that I live 4:13
4 Nigra sum 4:03
5 Behold, thou are fair 5:02
6 I am come into my garden 2:58
7 Reveal, reveal your presence 3:11
8 Mira que la dolencia de amor 4:26
9 Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt I 2:59
10 Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice! 5:03
11 Leave, alas, this tormenting 10:35
12 Jusquez au printemps 9:52
13 Der Herr is mein getrauer Hirt II 5:53



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