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Friday, December 20, 2013

Heinavanker, Songs of Olden Times, Estonian Folk Hymns and Runic Songs

When you hear a body of music previously unknown to you and the performances are very good, it's sometimes something like meeting up with a relative later in life whose path you never crossed. There is something so familiar about that person, yet you have never seen her or him before.

That's the feeling I get listening to the choral group Heinavanker and their album Songs of Olden Times, Estonian Folk Hymns and Runic Songs (Harmonia Mundi 907488). This is a terrific group and the music. . . I have never had the pleasure to hear the archaic vocal works of old Estonia. As I listened I heard something I've never heard before, with echoes of Orthodox Chant, Gregorian Chant, choral music of Georgia and the Ukraine, Medieval Organum, Mongolian throat singing, all kinds of things it had some relation to yet so different it clearly was not a direct product of any of the others. And it's so pleasingly old that it sounds like it could be an old-in-the-new series of contemporary works. It isn't. The fact that Arvo Part hails from Estonia led me to search for things that reminded me of his work, but it isn't quite like that, either.

Heinavanker, which means in Estonian "The Hay Wain", is a vocal ensemble formed by local composer Margo Kolar in 1996. They sound as they must be, that is, totally immersed in the archaic chant style of the region. They sound phenomenal.

The music covers quite a bit of ground. The melodies range from strictly but evocatively chant-like to folkish song form and everywhere between the two. Harmonies have thirds fourths and fifths and sometimes move in parallel motion, sometimes not. There are occasionally drone elements and then the throat singing makes its appearance now and again, with mostly the whistling sort of technique employed to add color to the ensemble while others sing in normal voice.

This is music you don't forget easily. It haunts. It evokes a world we inherited but never knew about (certainly not in the US anyway) until the recorded medium began bringing world and time to our shores, to our listening ears and hearts. And even at that Estonian vocal music has not been around much here. This is a first for me at least.

Songs of Olden Times is all about discovery. It is about a music that lives on and sounds as much relevant to our musical beings as anything. It's so old it almost sounds new. It is extraordinary music. The performances are totally compelling. Grab this one and drift off to a new yet ancient musical world.

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