With picturesque towns and medieval castles, the Baltic nation of Estonia is known to many as a stop on a Baltic sea cruise; much of the classical world is unaware of the rich Estonian choral tradition dating back to the 12th century. In and out of Russian control from the early 1700s, Estonia most recently came into its own politically in 1991 and since that time, the worldwide choral community has been eager to devour the unique music of Estonia’s composers. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, with its own 35-year high-level performance history, brought this long-standing musical tradition to the Princeton University Chapel last week.There are not many ensembles that can sell out the nearly 2,000-seat University Chapel, but last Thursday night’s performance, presented by Princeton University Concerts, showed the depth of interest in choral music by Princeton audiences. Thursday night’s concert included 12 pieces by four composers, and the music by Estonians Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis, as well as Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Finn Jean Sibelius showed both Estonian independence of musical thought and the country’s amalgamation of musical cultures from its geographical neighbors.
Composer Arvo Pärt has been a hit in the choral arena since his emergence on the international scene in the 1980s. His minimalistic compositional style is rooted in his self-invented and chant-based tintinnabuli technique. Led by conductor Kaspars Putninš, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir began the concert with a Pärt work which predated the composer’s tintinnabuli period, but which could easily connect with classical musicians universally. Pärt’s Solfeggio, dating from 1963, is an homage to the worldwide musical pedagogy of solfège, in which syllables are assigned to notes of the scale. The 26-voice Chamber Choir began this distinctive and humorous piece with a choral sound which immediately resonated in the space of the University Chapel. The women’s sectional sound recalled icicles hovering over a fuller tenor and bass sound, as Mr. Putninš led the ebb and flow of vocal intensity. Pärt’s other works on the program were from a more mature compositional period, with the men singing more forcefully, and unified forward vowels from all singers.
19th-century Russian composer Tchaikovsky wrote more choral music than audiences realize — 25 pieces, including substantial liturgical works and a set of nine sacred pieces, composed between late fall 1884 and summer 1885. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performed three of these liturgically-based pieces, all of which were presented with a pure choral sound and more vocal color than the Pärt works. Cherubim’s Song, No. 3 was one of three Cherubim pieces in the set, and the one which Tchaikovsky himself thought was the best. As with the other two sacred pieces performed, Cherubim’s Song was strophic, with each verse sung more powerfully by the Chamber Choir, but never losing the impeccable tuning consistent throughout the concert. Tchaikovsky’s choral works possess a reverent character, and the chamber choir sang this music with clean diction and a warm sound. The bass section provided a solid foundation, while upper voices floated sound through the acoustical space, placing notes on a continuous stream of well-tuned chords.
Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, who died this past month, has also been regarded as one of the country’s most significant composers of the 20th century, and his music has been especially championed by the chamber choir. Raised in a church music family, Tormis developed a particular affinity for incorporating the contrasting timbres and colors found in organ music into his choral works. The chamber choir performed two of his extensive a cappella works, both of which displayed a decisive choral sound, as well as featuring soloists from the ensemble.
The Tower Bell in My Village was performed in English, with special effects from an onstage “tower bell” and an extensive “recitation” sung by bass Henry Tiisma. This was a piece of musical effects, with such text as “melodies come from meadow” set with a calm and placid texture as if gazing over a meadow. The chorus later unleashed its full sound as the heavens opened in the story. The text patter style heard in Tormis’s pieces, also prevalent in the choral music of former Eastern European countries, requires exact vocal precision which the chamber choir easily maneuvered.
Tormis’s second work on the program, Raua needmine” (Curse Upon Iron) showcased tenor Toomas Tohert and bass Olan Viikholm conveying the allegory of the evils of war, supported by a chorus which both echoed the text and provided supporting musical effects. Throughout these works, as with the rest of the concert, the full house at the University Chapel was captivated by a choral sound which served as a good model for choruses not only in the United States but worldwide.