The latest SOH retrospective showcased both the Estonian wizard and the finest musicians from his hometown.

The Composers: Arvo Pärt
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Tönu Kaljuste, Helena Rathbone v
Sydney Opera House, April 7

The third instalment of the Opera House’s “Composers” concert series showcased the music of Estonian Arvo Pärt, and a sold-out concert hall greeted the visiting Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who performed under the baton of founding conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, along with musicians of the Sydney Symphony. Pärt’s tintinnabuli music remains unique and wildly popular within contemporary music, and the programme cannily juxtaposed old favourites with newer offerings such as Adam’s Lament, an extended choral-orchestral work written in 2010 under joint commission by the cities of Istanbul and Tallinn.

The EPCC, on their third visit to Australia, left nobody doubting their standing as one of Europe’s finest professional choirs. They, with Kaljuste, have performed and recorded Pärt for almost 30 years and premiered many of his works, and their respect for the difficulties of singing ‘simple’ music well was abundantly on show here. They sang, in three languages, with a commanding tone – warm, full, versatile, and Baltic – and with superb and unwavering intonation. The electrifying conclusion to the unaccompanied Seven Magnificat-Antiphons and the inexorably building sostenuto lines of Salve Regina were particular delights. The towering, slightly ursine Kaljuste conducted throughout with both panache and precision.

Helena Rathbone and Tamara Anna Cislowska gave Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano, perhaps Pärt’s best-loved work, and another piece whose simplicity is as challenging for the performer as it is captivating for the listener. Rathbone played with great control and understanding, though her efforts were undercut by an overenthusiastic and distracting application of artificial snow, which she did well to ignore. The audience’s greatest affections, however, were saved for Kirsty Hilton and Veronique Serret, who took the solo violin parts in the cornerstone Tabula Rasa. Equally at home with the vertiginous excitement of the first movement and the spiralling serenity of the second, the pair gave the double concerto with virtuosity and with a total commitment that was mirrored by every orchestral musician. However, the piano’s preparation left something to be desired.

The second half opened with Fratres, in its haunting version for cellos. After playing an accompanimental role in the Marian motet Salve Regina (delicately coloured with the celesta), the SSO strings came into their own once more with an impassioned performance of the elegiac Cantus. Adam’s Lament, the concluding item, featured the most dramatic music of the night, and once more revealed Pärt’s command of both choral and instrumental idioms. The composer’s music has displayed increasing freedom lately, and it will be fascinating to see what further turns this music takes as he approaches his eightieth year.