GRIGORJEVA Nox vitae. Diptych. God is the Lord. 1 Prayer. 1 Agnus Dei. In Paradisum • Mikk Üleoja, cond; 1 Theodor Sink (vc); Estonian Male Choir • TOCCATA 0679 (67:46 )
Ukrainian-born Galina Grigorjeva (b. 1962) has been based in Estonia since 1994, and choral music reflecting the Russian Orthodox tradition seems to play an important role in her work. This recording is made up of six works for male choir, either unaccompanied or with cello, and the program is roughly chronological from the first piece, written about fifteen years ago to the second-to-last, which dates from 2022. The In Paradisum setting, which is last on this disc, was written in 2012.
While the influence of choral music from the late 19th- and early 20th-century Orthodox repertoire can be clearly discerned here, much of Grigorjeva’s music is clearly significantly more modern in its use of complex dissonance—as well as more angular melodic concepts—when compared to the chant-derived works we generally associate with this tradition. The opening five-movement Nox vitae is quite confrontational—especially the anguished solo movement at its heart—but Grigorjeva’s writing for choir has a sense of authenticity that I find lacking in much of the new music for voices that seems to be coming out of this region of the world at the moment. This piece employs a basically secular text, but the second work on this new disc sets two familiar sacred texts related to death. The music here is much more soothing compared to Nox vitae, although the harmonic language is similarly complex, albeit still rooted in tonality. The singing is very sensitive, particularly in the first of these two pieces: Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, and this work builds to an impassioned climax quite wonderfully, forming perhaps the single most impressive highlight of the recording.
Both of the next two works feature the choir with a solo cellist. The first opens with a powerful choral statement highly reminiscent of much older Slavic hymn traditions, a melody which will return as a kind of refrain throughout the piece. The cellist’s first entry responds to the choir in dramatic fashion, and from there on there is quite a bit of back and forth between the two contrasting forces. This piece presents perhaps the most energetic music on this new disc and it is impressive. The second cello-accompanied work, Prayer, is understandably more introspective. This is also a quite substantial work, coming in at just under thirteen minutes. It seems this piece was originally written for solo saxophone and organ in 2005, and Grigorjeva has subsequently arranged it for a number of different combinations. This version for cello and male choir dates from 2014.
The Agnus Dei setting—which receives its first recording here—opens with dramatic, dark writing for the choir. This is the music on this new recording which most overtly recalls older traditions of Russian Orthodox choral music, not least as this is also the most tonally traditional work on the recording. For all the drama of the opening, the piece gradually (in two segments) becomes more and more introspective. It seems hard to resist the feeling that this piece likely reflects Grigorjeva’s reaction to contemporary world events in her region. Even if that is not the case, I would suggest this is still a valid reaction to this intense and profoundly sad music.
The final work on this recording sets another staple sacred text: the final movement of the Requiem Mass, In Paradisum. This work exists in three arrangements: for women’s choir, mixed choir, and the one recorded here, male choir. In turn doleful and passionate, this work forms an appropriate close to a fine recital showcasing Grigorjeva’s compositions.
The performances recorded here by the Estonian Male Choir—as well as cellist Sink—are outstanding, and the recording is equally fine. When I first started listening to this disc I was not overly impressed by what I heard, but as I continued to listen I became more and more won over by Grigorjeva’s sincerity, passion, and skill as a composer. This is a fine new recording of works that I believe showcase a composer thoroughly secure in what she is trying to do, and convincing in her achievement. Well worth investigating. William Kempster