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On CD: Baltic Runes

Baltic Runes. Paul Hillier, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Harmonia Mundi.
by Tom Huizenga

From yoiks to lovers: a range of Scandinavian vocal traditions is presented on this follow-up to the same team's Baltic Voices.

With an estimated 42.6 million people singing in American choirs alone, choral music is thriving in terms of those who sing it, those who compose it, and those who simply enjoy listening.
And there is plenty of enjoyable listening on Baltic Runes, another rock-solid collaboration (the eleventh) between director Paul Hillier and the virtuosic Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. While not everything on the disc might fall as easily on the ear as, say, the lush compositions by America's young Eric Whitacre, it jubilantly underscores the innovation found in choral writing from greater Scandinavia, where the singing traditions are even stronger than they are here.
(read more after the jump)

Take the Yoik. A fascinating style from Lapland, it's really more of a verb -- you "yoik" someone by creating their essence in a mélange of yelping and swooping somewhere between the sound of American Indian chanting, Meredith Monk's vocal improvisations and a wounded reindeer. It's jarring, but it appears within the disc's most arresting composition, the textless "Lapponia," comprised of invented syllables, written by the Finn Erik Bergman.

Jean Sibelius's charming "Rakastava" (The Lover), in its original choral version, is the polar opposite. Female voices flutter light as aspen leaves, while tenors calmly recite a list of woodland locales.

Veljo Tormis, perhaps Estonia's most important living composer, is justly represented. "The Bishop and the Pagan" tells of a missionary, murdered at the hands of Finnish pagans in 1158. The music progresses from peaceful plainsong to violent shouts. And the disc opens with Tormis's luminous "Lauusild," building on a foundation of soft male voices until the entire chorus, in full cry, swirls in interlocking parts.

The word "rune," in Baltic Runes, indicates a magical incantation -- an apt image for such an enchanting album.

--Tom Huizenga

By Anne Midgette  |  June 8, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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