Estonian National Male Choir

Silva Caledonia

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Gavin Bryars has proved to be an exceptionally versatile composer over the course of his career, with cutting-edge avant-garde experiments, minimalism (exemplified in his best-known work, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet), and intensely lyrical choral and instrumental works. This CD gathers a selection of pieces from the last category, all featuring men's chorus, sometimes alone, and sometimes in unique combinations with other performing forces. The Double Bass Concerto is among the most eccentric in its orchestration; it's rare to have voices as part of the accompaniment in an instrumental concerto. Bryars deploys the forces so skillfully, though, that the mix seems completely natural, and he always maintains a balance that lets the appropriate musical ideas take the foreground. He specifies that one vocal part is written for "Russian basses," meaning singers with voices that extend nearly an octave below the conventional range for basses. The work is, unsurprisingly, extremely dark, but it's not heavy. Bryars' vision is warmly lyrical, with a strong sense of drama and direction; it's a beautifully crafted and satisfying piece. Ian in the Broch, with a text by Scots poet George Bruce, uses the same forces, but with the addition of a baritone soloist. It's a lighter work overall, with a character that's as strongly melodic as it is textural, and it ends ecstatically with the baritone singing "Gloria!" in duet with the double bass. The CD also includes one work by Estonian composer Toivo Tulev, for alto solo, two male choirs and three wind ensembles, which, despite its large number of performers and bottom heavy instrumentation, is a work of real delicacy. The Estonian National Male Choir sings with pure, warm tone in performances of clarity and sensitivity. In spite of the predominance of very low instruments and voices, the sound is very fine -- never leaden or muddy -- with an atmospheric presence, and the balance is excellent.

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