Review by LC January 29, 2005 (10 of 10 found this review helpful)
|Review: Stereo portion of stereo/multichannel SA-CD
Audio System (stereo only):
Sony ES, Art Audio, Reference 3A, Cardas (see User Details)
A few years ago, Paul Hillier recorded an intriguing CD called Fragments with his current American ensemble Theatre of Voices. The medieval Greek and Russian selections on Fragments were performed well, but seemed unabashedly “westernized” compared to performances of similar material by Orthodox choirs such as the Greek Byzantine Choir and Russian Patriarchate Choir. The following year, Hillier was made Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The Powers of Heaven is Hillier’s second recording with the group, and is devoted to music whose relationship to Western music is apparently much more complex than the (Eastern) material on Fragments.
Instead of pure medieval monophony, this recording presents a Baroque polyphonic tradition that flourished throughout a period when Peter the Great was westernizing his country. Two of the composers here, Galuppi (1706-1785) and Sarti (1729-1802), were actually imported from Italy, and the most prominently featured Russian, Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825), studied in Italy. The result is no mere adulteration of Slavic tradition, but successful music with a mix of characteristically Western and Slavic tonal qualities. And some of the compositional forms are mixed, too. For instance, three of the Bortniansky works are “choral concertos,” which were the musical centerpieces of rites within an Orthodox church that forbids all musical instruments except ceremonial bells.
If, like me, you love medieval Orthodox choral music for its spine-tingling “ison” drones and searing, florid solos, this recording (most of whose content is from the very end, or even later, of the advertised “17th-18th centuries”) may be a little disappointing. If, however, you admire 19th century Russian music and want to hear some major precursors and influences of a composer such as Tchaikovsky, this may be a very rewarding program. And if you just love choral polyphony of all kinds when it is performed well, you should consider yourself lucky that this flawless performance is offered on SA-CD. The EPCC have a smooth, full bodied delivery that is well suited to the Italian elements and makes some of the stouter Slavic elements particularly alluring without distorting their authenticity. They are joined for this project by renowned basso profundo Vladimir Miller, and the bass parts are simply fantastic: deep, rich, and controlled. The many solos are well executed and well supported, and the group probably has a more satisfying overall sound than any other medium sized choir I can think of, and almost certainly than any other on SA-CD. I think Hillier and the EPCC really were lucky to find each other.
I was impressed by the CD sonics on Fragments, which captured the small ensemble quite well. Harmonia Mundi continues to do justice to Hillier’s projects with The Powers of Heaven. Though necessarily less intimate than Fragments due to the group’s larger size, the recording achieves high degrees of presence and specificity, and the group’s sound is not smeared together in a cavernous acoustic space. David Vernier in his review of the CD version mentions a mild glare that afflicts some of the louder passages as his sole sonic complaint, and even this seems to be absent on the SA-CD version. In fact, the recording gives the sopranos less shrillness, and the crescendos less raggedness, than pretty much any similar scale recording I have heard. It conveys wonderfully the choir’s smooth tones and seamless give and take. And the basses. Wow. The voices themselves would be impressive no matter what, but their recorded presentation here is really something. For example, there is just no comparison between these and the basses on Chandos’ Medieval Russian Chant CD, which are very good and very deep, but just don’t have the warmth, the distinctness, or the natural weight that HM captures here on SA-CD. The recording has enough precision to convey the Slavic colourations of both the music and the Estonians’ individual voices as they sing polyphonic lines of varying complexity. But it is not so analytic that it impedes the perfect blending of voices that the group can achieve.
This is a sensitive, edifying, and at times compelling performance of music from a religious tradition in which unaccompanied choral singing has an absolute and exclusive importance. The recording is clear, smooth, and balanced, and presents some truly exceptional deep bass singing.
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