Estonian composer Toivo Tulev (born 1958) grew up under the Soviet-led communist regime in power in much of the Baltic region at that time. Early in his career, the communists in charge rejected his compositions, which were often religious in nature. As communism began to crumble, Tulev was beginning to reach his artistic maturity as a composer, and he was therefore able to perform many of his works without the rigid artistic oversight of the former regime. He spent many years as a member of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, so his choral writing is informed by his experiences as a choral performer. Choral conductor extraordinaire Paul Hillier, the director of the EPCC, has produced over the last several years a number of discs for Harmonia mundi in the Baltic Voices series that have showcased the works of little-known (outside their native lands) or infrequently programmed Baltic composers. Volume 2 of that series included a work by Tulev, and that was apparently the genesis of this new collection that includes not only the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, but also the Tallinn Chamber Orchesta, who accompany many of the works presented here. All included works here are world premieres.
A few years ago, Paul Hillier suggested to Tulev that he compose a work for performance in Tallinn’s St. Nicholas Church that would place performers and instrumentalists in various positions around the venue. The resulting work, “Songs,” is the centerpiece of this excellent new SACD disc. In the recorded performance, the various choirs and orchestral members are placed within the church in the shape of a crucifix, and the resulting surround sound disc is an aural tour-de-force of choral singing! The texts used are presented in their Latin, Spanish and English translations; Tulev is a master of counterpoint, and the effect of the overlapping languages is quite startling, to say the least! Tulev’s intense study of Gregorian chant is clearly in evidence here, and while the works have a strongly incantational style, they’re nonetheless highly original, with a heavy emphasis on mysticism. Via the SACD disc’s multichannel layer, the presentation is nothing short of magnificent; you’re totally enveloped by the barrage of singers and instrumentalists from every direction.
Harmonia mundi gets five stars with this exceptional release; it’s works like this that continue to make the need for a viable hi-res surround medium such as SACD so dire. And thanks to Paul Hillier for his work at the forefront; by bringing us artists, who might otherwise continue to be seriously neglected, he’s done the world of classical music a great service, indeed. Very highly recommended!
— Tom Gibbs