It is a genuine brain drain just to make out Heinavanker's intentions in its debut album for Finnish label Alba. It is an Estonian vocal group, led by Margo Kölar, specializing in traditional Estonian sacred folk choruses that sound inevitably folksy, with uneven rhythms and close harmonies sometimes voiced in fifths, unisons, and even seconds. In this program, Heinavanker contrasts this highly interesting folk material with bits of Gregorian chant and mass movements from fifteenth century Flemish master Johannes Ockeghem, and the booklet is vividly illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Haywain, from which the group takes its name.
The singing, by Heinavanker, is fabulous, quite unlike anything you have ever heard; these are professional singers who bring to the Estonian folk choruses a sense of purity and vocal blending you are unlikely to encounter out in the field. It brings much of the same qualities to Ockeghem, certainly more familiar territory for most fans of choral music, but if any common elements between the sophisticated polyphony of Ockeghem and the rough-hewn harmonies of Estonia's towns and churches exist in this program, then they are not readily apparent. In addition, most of the traditional pieces show signs of arrangement and, according to the notes, are "semi-improvised" yet "exist in oral tradition and the improvisation inherent in traditional music can always be heard in performance." The clunkiness of this quote is exemplary of the booklet note, given in Estonian, Finnish, German, and English. Only one vocal text is given in English, and the texts, both epistolary and sung, is rendered in a manner that is messy and largely inchoate.
That is a shame, as this is stunning, even life-affirming, music. No matter to what degree these pieces may be arranged, the singing of the folk choruses is genuinely moving, harmonically rich, inventive, and quite different from the norm. While the Ockeghem is nice, you might gladly trade the four movements listed under his name here for four more folk choruses! Unless you are fluent in Estonian, the listener is advised to set aside the booklet -- its layout and content are a disaster area anyway -- and just to enjoy this album without trying to grasp the contextual thrust behind the program. The runic, pre-Christian folk chorus "The Creation," with its drones and micro-intervallic harmonic shifts, is one of many highlights. Those devoted to music made by small, expert choral groups will find much to savor here; as would conceivably any music lovers who would find themselves at Heinavanker's door. Overall, everything here but the booklet is sublime.