GMCD 7245 – Te Deum – Music by Engel, Kreek, Bach, Nystedt
Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Mikk Üleoja – Choir Conductor, Iris Oja – Alto solo, Katja Galina Urb – Soprano solo, Franz Hauk – Organ, Paul Engel – Director of music
American Record Guide – July/August 2003
Here we are served up a rich repast of highly varied, predominantly Estonian music for Organ, brasses, percussion, and choir – but not all at once; in fact, all four elements are heard together only in the concluding Engel piece. Most of it is sacred, or at least intended to be performed in a church – in this case, lnnsbruck’s St Jakob Cathedral.
The opening selection is by Paul Engel (b 1949): Venetian Deja-vu for nine brasses, after Giovanni Gabrieli. Written in 2001, it is very freely based on a motet and an eight-part sonata for double instrumental choirs by the younger Gabrieli. The musical language is intermittently bitonal and sounds distinctly contemporary, but it works well as intended. This is a very busy, skilfully constructed, and demanding work. Fleeting thematic and harmonic echoes of the old master are there, but sometimes you have to listen very carefully to hear them. I’m not sure I’ve caught them all, even after four hearings. But the overall sonic effect is very much like that of Gabrieli’s vivid multi-choir brass extravaganzas: very impressive, even thrilling! The amazing virtuosity of Vienna’s Art of Brass Ensemble is immediately apparent.
A stark sonic contrast then emerges in the form of three settings by the Estonian Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1950) from his Psalms of David for Choir (choral freaks: another exciting discovery!). His reverential and ecstatic a cappella settings take their thunderstruck listeners an ethnic and structural step or two beyond Russian Orthodox chant, but the wondrous mystical intensity of that form remains unscathed. The imposing Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir – one of the best of the full-throated Slavic-tradition groups – sounds like a band of gutsy, enraptured angels in the cathedral’s reverberant acoustic. Really beautiful stuff!.
Franz Hauk (who doubles as the author of the fine program notes) then offers an interlude of gripping organ playing, on a spectacular new (1999-2000) cathedral instrument from Johann Pirchner. lt’s all-Bach: the mighty Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue followed by the gentle S 641 Chorale Prelude, ‘When we are in dire distress’. Hauk makes child’s play of the challenging toccata, including the imposing 12-bar pedal solo-one of the toughest ever. I would’ve loved to watch his flashing feet as he went at it! Recording quality is magnificent.
Contrasts continue with a single arresting a cappella choral piece by the Norwegian Knut Nystedt, ‘lmmortal Bach’, after ‘Come Sweet Death’. After presenting the aching chorale just as Bach left it, Nystedt proceeds to transform each separate line by building highly dissonant tone clusters, one note at a time, on top of Bach’s foundation notes. This causes creeping accumulations of fearful tension that bury the great master’s voice in seething, painful musical chaos. But in each episode, just as the listener begins to wonder if he can take any more, Nystedt slowly plucks individual notes back out of the grim tonal fabric, blessedly resolving all into peace and serenity once more. This is an utterly ingenious and fascinating piece that certainly adds a disturbing new dimension to the original chorale.
The program ends with the title work, Engel’s complex and hard-hitting Te Deum. Whiffs of old Slavic church modes waft through the busy musical fabric like incense; but otherwise, the grim old patriarchs of yesteryear would be appalled. I wasn’t it seems to me a truly original and meticulously crafted work. It positively reeks of pomp and glory, intermittently leavened by abject entreaty and hushed mystery. Instruments include percussion (drums, bells, xylophone), nine mixed brasses, and organ – all employed with great imagination.
The choir’s sonorities seem a bit recessed compared to their spacious sound in the Kreek pieces; but then, sonic room had to be made for an awful lot of instrumental decibels as well. lf there’s any label that knows how to record music in churches, it’s Guild – and they strike mostly happy dynamic balances here. Choir and instrumentalists alike are everywhere superb.
This collection might just as well have been included in the composer section, as the music of Engel occupies the lion’s share of the space. Despite the excellence of the other selections, it seems primarily intended to show off his compositions – and with good reason. Engel, whose works are just now beginning to be recorded, is a composer to be reckoned with – as if Estonia doesn’t have enough fine ones already!
Fans of organ, brass ensembles, and choral music will all find something to gush about here. Every selection is a revelation. I’d buy it for the Kreek pieces alone. Notes, texts and translations.
Musicweb Saturday April 05 2003
I wouldn’t normally recommend hearing a CD with nine works on it from beginning to end in one sitting. Indeed I did not at first do so myself. However this is one of those rare CDs when hearing the whole disc at a single session is a highly desirable thing to do despite its seventy-minute duration.
Now and again a disc comes into a reviewer’s hands, which at first may not seem to be too promising but which proves to be exciting and fascinating. For me this has proved to be just such a disc. It is beautifully planned, expertly recorded, staggering well performed and in short a revelation. Guild is producing discs with a considerably original profile. This is typical of the Guild stable, including as it does two important composers, Engel and Kreek, little known outside their own countries.
The programme is shaped at the beginning and end by two major works by the Austrian composer Paul Engel. So the plan is: a work for Brass of sixteen-minute duration by Engel followed by three short psalm settings by Kreek for unaccompanied chorus. Then comes a major Bach organ work and then a chorale prelude. There follows a choral work dedicated to Bach by Nystedt and then the culmination of the entire disc the 25 minute Te Deum for chorus, organ, brass and percussion by Engel.
Let me put some flesh on the skeleton.
Engel’s work for brass is nicely entitled a ‘déjà-vu’ being based upon the Sonata XIII by Giovanni Gabrieli for eight instrumental groups and also on the motet ‘Jubilate Deo’ I listened to both of these pieces before preparing this review and I must say that the connections are not obvious. However there are certain turns of melody and rhythm, which are reminiscent of both works. Anyway Engel’s work is full of interest and life even if slightly anonymous.
Cyrillus Kreek was an Estonian composer. If these psalm settings are anything to go by then Kreek should be better known. He is an ascetic composer, who wastes not a single note. These settings are beautiful, simple and austere, inspired by the spiritual folksongs. The collecting and cataloguing of folksong was a lifelong mission for Kreek. The Estonian Philharmonic Choir is perfect for this music, well balanced with a touch of that typical Northern European vibrato and with strong dynamics.
The organ at St. Jakob’s Church, Innsbruck was reconstructed by Johann Pirchner in 1999; its specification is given. The pedal board is particularly impressive with an unusual 2¾ foot Mixtur VI. In my view it is not really a Bach organ but its picture on the CD booklet gives the impression of it being a baroque-inspired instrument. In any case it’s a small point and the two pieces work well in a very agreeable performance by Franz Hauk, who also contributes the booklet notes.
Knut Nystedt is Norwegian. He has been an invigorating renewer in the field of church music in Norway. He has an individual sound with his use of cluster chords and speech techniques in the 1960s. Clusters are used in this work as it grows in intensity. More recently neo-romantic elements have crept in and these are to be found in this ‘Homage to Bach’ using a chorale melody ‘Komm Susser Tod’.
Then comes Engel’s Te Deum where all of the above musicians come together. This is a real masterwork. It divides the text into four sections played without break. I am impressed by its form, shape, overwhelming harmonic sense and growth, rhythmic excitement and overall power. It leaves one spiritually uplifted. It is performed as well as any composer might expect and quite obviously much enjoyed. It is not too ‘modern’ and although tough it is not forbidding.
The booklet notes are useful if rather quaintly and anonymously translated. I particularly enjoyed a description of the end of the Te Deum, which describes the music as ‘lingering bells fuse with wind and organ accords, which form a background for a large soprano solo’. I make no further comment concerning fat ladies.
The Organ 323 March 2003
As much as a mixed bag of intrigue this disc, on the surface, seems to be, the programme proves more structured than a first glance suggests. Brass, Choir and Organ shine separately in three-quarters of the disc, with Paul Engel’s Te Deum uniting the whole for the grand finale.
Engel’s music opens the recording with Venetian Déjà-vu for Brass. lt opens rather like the Open University’s title sequence from the seventies and eighties, but quickly ferments its ideas, settling into a long, winding exploration of timbres within modern notions of consonance, dipped, occasionally, into a sauce of discord, which combine with rhythmic thrusts of the fanfare variety, all sparked by the Brass writing of Giovanni Gabrieli. This leads to Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962)’s Psalms of David for Choir (no.s 104,141,1-3) sensitively sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; plenty of Basso Profundo pedal, not overly worked but adding an Eastern European character to these beautiful works.
Franz Hauk, playing the Organ of Dom St Jakob, Innsbruck, built in the style of Johann Pirchner by Steinach between 1999 and 2000, gives a commanding performance of J. S. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C minor, BWV 564, on this powerful instrument, the two outer movements etched with a lively, crisp execution, the Adagio elongating the harmonic sequences with languor. He continues with Bach’s Chorale BWV 641 – Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, before the Choir intone Knut Nystedt (b.1915)’s deeply moving lmmortal Bach nach “Komm Süsser Tod” with its disturbing sustained harmonic dissonances that linger longer than comfortable resolutions normally allow – simply awesome.
Paul Engel’s Te Deum is a Trinity created from the three former elements, Brass and percussion, Choir and Organ. Nothing awkward in this setting, the music, modern in context, dating from 1988, but equally drawn upon residual notions of earlier 20th century Eastern European composers. The Organ part never dominates but is a potent part of the mix that makes the work attractive to a contemporary audience looking for new expressions of the text.