Sunday 4 February 2018

Singing to create a national identity: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Esonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Esonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Arvo Pärt, Jonathan Harvey, Cyrillus Kreek, Veljo Tormis; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Kaspars Putninš ; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Jan 30 2018
Star rating: 4.0

A hundred years of the land of song: Estonia celebrates centenary in fine choral style

This sold-out concert in Milton Court on 30 January 2018 by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conductor Kaspars Putninš, marked the centenary of the Republic of Estonia and was attended by the Estonian Prime Minister. The first half of the evening was dedicated to the most internationally famous Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, and the second covered his musical forbears and contemporaries, Cyrillus Kreek, Veljo Tormis and Jonathan Harvey. Nicholas Kenyon introduced the proceedings by saying that Britain and Estonia are bound by a strong tradition of choral singing and in Estonia it is integrated into national life. “Now,” he said, “it is more important than ever”. Several British people I eavesdropped on in the interval were commenting on the fact that it looks set to shrink here.

Meurig Bowen summed up Pärt’s changing style in his programme notes: the standard view is that he started out as avant-garde bad-boy writing “black-note complexity”, went quiet for a decade and came out writing other-wordly “white-note loveliness”. The first piece we heard, from 1962, was Solfeggio – “do re mi fa sol la si…” in C major that starts off simply and builds in complexity. A long way from the Von Trapp Family Singers’ version, and a wonderful introduction.
Summa was the Credo in Latin, written when Pärt was still living in Soviet Estonia. Sparse and mesmerising with tintinnabulism in large measure and the typical Pärt technique of distributing syllables between voice parts so they sound like whole words to the audience. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (in Latin) were separated by Zwei Beter in German – the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican from the Gospel of Luke, and The Woman with the Alabaster Box in English. It is hard not to over-use the word “mesmerising” when writing about Pärt, but this section of the evening truly was. The German pronunciation took a while to settle, but once it did there was a glorious sense of space and time standing still.

The final number of the first half was totally different, Dopo la vittoria. A “piccolo cantata” in Italian, it was an explanation of how we come to sing “Te Deum laudamus” (“We praise thee, Lord”). Choppy and chopped, it was the least successful of the Pärt survey. The Estonians didn’t seem at home with the Italian, there were a few messy entries and the bronchitis sufferers in the choir were rather more audible than previously.

After the interval we went back in time to Cyrillus Kreek’s Psalms of David – an orthodox Russian sound-world from the man who did much to create a national Estonian identity of folk singing. I’ll be looking out for Kreek again.

Jonathan Harvey’s Plainsongs for Peace and Light was premiered in Riga by tonight’s conductor Kaspars Putniņš with the Latvian Radio Choir in 2013. It started out as plainchant and became denser, while The Angels had a timelessness through John V Taylor’s expansive text and cradle-rocking hummed accompaniment.

Veljo Tormis is better known inside Estonia than outside. A Soviet artist, his St John’s Day Songs (we heard a second for the encore) are outdoorsy and energetic, a celebration of Midsummer with all-day dancing, eating and boozing. The other number was the Curse on Iron, written in 1972. It was from the Kalevala, a story about iron from ore to an evil substance that needs controlling. We went from a primeval to an industrial landscape, with the relentless “shamanic” drum and chant, to a massive pentatonic shout. My Latvian neighbour said she would have loved to sing that – I must say I’d be worrying if I would be able to speak the next day. They made some terrific effects – a didgeridoo, a chilling siren and then back to the drumming and chanting.

Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) - Solfeggio; Summa; Magnificat; Zwei Beter; The Woman with the Alabaster Box; Nunc dimittis; Dopo la vittoria
Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) - Plain songs for Peace and Light; The Angels
Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) - Taaveti laulud/Psalms of David
Veljo Tormis (1930-2017) - Kutse jaanitulele from Jaanilaulud/St John’s Day Songs for Midsummer Eve; Raua needmine/Curse Upon Iron

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Kaspars Putninš conductor

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