Thursday 10 February 2011

Estonia Philhamonic Chamber Choir

To the Cadogan Hall on Tuesday for a concert by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under their conductor Daniel Reuss. Whilst the hall was busy, it was by no means full which was surprising given the reputation of the choir and the fact that the concert included two very substantial works by Arvo Pärt.

They opened with Mendelssohn's Three Psalms Opus 78, which are are works that I know from singing them rather than listening to them in concert. Reuss's tempi seemed somewhat on the swift side, losing something of the grandeur of Mendelssohn's piece and it was only in the final psalm, Mein Gott, warum has du mich verlassen? that the performance seemed to come together. Things were not helped by the rather indifferent solo singing in the first psalm, Warum toben die Heiden?. All the soloists in the Mendelssohn and the other pieces in the programme came from the choir and, the opening psalm apart, were excellent.

The remaining items on the programme were all either Scandinavian or Estonian and something in the temper of these works seemed to suit the choir better. Whereas, in the Mendelssohn, their rather characterful, focussed tone seemed to lack warmth and grandeur, in Pärt, Sibelius and Kreek they seemed entirely apposite.

The performance of Sibelius's Rakastava, in the mixed choir version, was entirely apposite and everything it should be, wonderfully atmospheric. The first half concluded with Pärt's Magnificat, written in 1989. This is a magnificently austere piece and the choir's performance was nearly faultless, their tone quality suiting the work's character perfectly. All that was lacking really was a suitable acoustic, Cadogan Hall is really rather too dry for this style of choral music.

The second half opened with a sequence of works by the Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek (1889 - 1962), who was highly influential in creating a body of work for Estonian choirs and who devoted much of his time to collecting folk songs. He collected around 6,000 tunes and produces more than 500 folk song arrangements. His Psalms of David were written in 1923, these are sober, austere works which impress by their balance, clarity of word setting and directness of harmony. They deserve to be better known within choirs in this country. There then followed 3 of Kreek's arrangements of Estonian religious folk songs, works which had a far more direct appeal and charm.

Finally, we heard 5 movements from Pärt's mammoth Kanon pokajnen (Canon of Repentance). The movements performed were Ode VI, Kondak, Ikos, Ode IX, Prayer after the Canon. This is Pärt at his most austere and gnomic. At times the ikon-like unchangeability of the pieces threatened to degenerate into stasis, but the choir's secure grip of Pärt's vocal lines and the intensity of delivery from both choir and excellent soli ensured that it did not. Some of the vocal writing is rather merciless and the choir were superb in their delivery and confidence. I think that the performance would have been helped a great deal by a warmer, more resonant acoustic would would have allowed Pärt's tintinnabulations to resound rather more; we were sometimes aware of the spare textures, without the benefit of an aura of harmonic resonance from the acoustic. But this was a welcome opportunity to hear an intense performance of a wonderful piece.

Finally the choir gave us a clutch of folk songs as encores.

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