The Powers of Heaven is the second recording Paul Hillier has made with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and it covers a sampling of Eastern Orthodox sacred literature dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These were the first centuries in which coherent literature was produced for Russian Orthodox choirs singing in Old Church Slavonic, and the arrival of Italian composers in the middle of the eighteenth century had a strong impact on this uniformly unaccompanied music; they too are represented in selections from Baldassare Galuppi and Giuseppe Sarti.
From the very first second of this disc it is apparent what a consistently beautiful tone Hillier is able to draw from this Estonian choir; moreover, he is extremely patient with the pacing of this music -- a critical element -- and sweats such details as the proper intonation of very low bass notes often heard in such music. Hillier has the taste and good sense not to juice up this material in any way; the delivery of everything on the disc is meticulously prepared, straightforward, and appropriately devotional in tone. The booklet contains brief, but excellent notes by Marika C. Kuzma that provide rare historical context for this generally mysterious music, and the program itself is concentrated in a specific period. Collections of Eastern Orthodox sacred music usually draw upon Bortnyansky only from this specific era and combine his work with much later compositions. This isn't so much a reflection of historical ignorance about the music as it is merely the usual working mix of what Eastern Orthodox choirs sing; developments in this music haven't evolved very radically from the model Bortnyansky provided around 1800. By isolating key literature from these remote centuries, Hillier has done well to provide listeners with a baseline for understanding the context of Old Church Slavonic music, demystifying but not removing the essential emotional mystery or impact of Orthodox polyphony. In sum, Orthodox chant is moving, eloquent, otherworldly, and very excellent.