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Review: When 'Voices' heal

A female composer's graceful promise

By Porter Anderson

Paul Hillier, in notes for "Baltic Voices 2," writes of the unique sound of Eastern choral work being "regarded as perfectly normal by the locals."
CD: 'Baltic Voices 2'
Conducto: Paul Hillier
Ensemble: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Genre: Choral, sacred, a cappella
Label: Harmonia Mundi 907331 (2004), $17.98
Alfred Schnittke
Arts (general)

(CNN) -- In Christian sacred music of many Western cultures, reassurance is favored over mystery, the certainty of unshakable faith over the worries of the imponderable.

By contrast, the Baltic musical traditions of three great Christian constructs -- Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox -- can make you a devout believer that Rudyard Kipling was optimistic. Even when "Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat," East and West just may not meet.

Paul Hillier, whose "Baltic Voices 1" with the Estonian Philharmonic Choir was nominated for a 2004 Grammy, is back. And in "Baltic Voices 2," he moves even more deeply into the long, white, a cappella night of an Eastern choral winter solstice.

By focusing this installment of the series on religious music -- and then introducing two previously unrecorded composers, Toivo Tulev and Galina Grigorjeva -- Hillier demonstrates what a powerhouse of ecclesiastical character is based on the eastern shoreline of the Baltic Sea.

Tulev's "And then in silence there with me be only You" opens with a shuddering evocation of the "Hail Mary" for altos and sopranos. The tenors and then the bass singers respond as witnesses afraid to pounce too firmly on the ethereal sonic vision of "the Virgin, weighed with the Word of God" as she "comes down the road." Here dissonant and distant, Hillier's ensemble searches for light, winding up wide arpeggio-stairways, only to be grounded by Tulev in pleading chords: "If only you'll shelter her."

And then there's 42-year-old Galina Grigorjeva's "On Leaving." What a treasure.

After the brief "To thee, O Lord" dedication, a height of ecstasy is quickly scaled in the second of five movements, followed by a basso fall to Earth in the third. This part of the work, "A canon on the separation of the soul from the body," makes it gratifyingly clear that this artist is fully in command of her forces, the singers describing a soul's fearful, valiant struggle to escape the gravity of life.

In looking for this music within herself, Grigorjeva writes (Harmonia Mundi's notes are provided in German, French, Cyrillic and English): "I acquainted myself with the 15th-to-17th-century tradition of polyphonic singing and with various forms of Russian sacred poetry. The natural dissonance and almost impenetrable rhythmic organization of heterophonic polyphony I find most remarkable."

And so are the results. Grigorjeva's astonishing fourth movement, only two minutes and 19 seconds long, is titled "After the soul leaves the body." It somehow cloisters both ancient and modern modes at once, the choir reaching, straining with the extended-chord passion of a mounting phrase Gyorgy Ligeti might have penned.

The album also includes rich work of Ulmas Sisask and Alfred Schnittke -- listen for the proud, major resolution of the second of his "Three Sacred Hymns." These works hover with disturbing beauty, eerie in the peculiar hope with which this idiom glazes mortal despair.

But it's in this welcome first-CD entry for Grigorjeva, "On Leaving," that we hear what must be the real potential here.

In this woman, this music lives, and it does so in a world that routinely discards legitimate artistic values for amateur mall culture and banality ("reality") shows. Just think how spectacular a feat of personality it is to produce such majesty today, amid our pervasive commercial squalor.

The Eastern choral oeuvre is being expanded by a powerful female composer born in the Crimea. She is contributing, and in our time, some of the purest iterations we may ever hear of one of the most distinctive and unnerving strains of the Christian aesthetic.

"Baltic Voices 2" may leave you whispering Grigorjeva's aching rapture in her last lyric: "Alleluia."

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