December 2006

A New Joy - Orthodox Christmas
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Paul Hillier, conductor
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807410
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2006

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

As the years go by and more CDs, SACDs, and DVD-As have been added to the holiday shelf, it has become harder to come up with anything fresh and new for the season. This disc covers a genre that has not been over represented, Orthodox Church music for unaccompanied choir from the 19th century, with a few 20th-century throwbacks included for good measure. Since many of the melodies are taken from folk music, they often sound familiar even when they actually are not. There are only two carols here that can be considered well known: the Ukrainian New Year’s carol, "A Song of Good Cheer," most often called "The Bell Carol" in the US; and Tchaikovsky’s "The Legend." The melody for the latter served the Romantic-period Russian composer Antony Arensky as a main theme for his charming Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky.

The performances are polished and full of energy. When singing quiet passages, the chorus members create a remarkable sense of expectancy. Pitch is no problem for the 27 chorus members. Their tone is rich and the basses have that dark sound one only finds in choruses of Eastern Europe and Russia, the basso profundo. The recorded sound is warm and glowing, close but not too close. The stereo CD and SACD tracks are excellent, but the SACD multichannel mix adds welcome presence and space to the sound without actually altering it. The disc opens and closes with bell ringing from St. Alexander Cathedral, which sounds especially beautiful in spacious 5.1-channel sound.