Arvo Part: A Sacred Journey
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.
Musicians of the Sydney Symphony.
Conductor: Tonu Kaljuste.
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. April 7.

SIBELIUS described his sixth symphony as a glass of pure spring water compared with the cocktail concoctions of his contemporaries.

This is also an apt description for Estonian composer Arvo Part’s post-1976 output.

Deeply influenced by plainchant and sacred Orthodox music, Part developed his famous tintinnabuli style in the 1970s, based on the bell-like sounds he discerned in the three notes of a triad. From this simple basis, he fashioned a unique and profound musical language.

Conductor Tonu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir understand Part’s music intimately. Under Kaljuste’s direction, the choir’s finely controlled ensemble blend and immense variety of tone colours revealed the ethereal beauty of his sacred choral works.

In Magnificat (1989), the choir’s unadorned tonal purity and subtle shifts in tempos, dynamics, harmonies and textures captured the work’s austere character. Its earthier timbre and strong sense of tempo and dynamic contrast created a striking account of Seven Magnificat Antiphons (1991).

In the second half, Kaljuste and the choir were joined by a string ensemble from the Sydney Symphony to perform two recent compositions. What both demonstrated was how Part’s expressive range has expanded.

In Salve Regina (2011), appealing string themes and the sporadic deployment of a delicately chiming celeste vividly enlivened the quietly devotional character of the choral sections.

Adam’s Lament (2009) turned out to be the concert’s most energetic and dramatic work. Here, Part’s trademark passages of subdued, reflective undulation were interspersed with agile string figures, incisive rhythms and powerful tutti outbursts.

In contrast to the choral pieces, the concert’s instrumental and orchestral works were drawn exclusively from Part’s earlier tintinnabuli compositions.

Replacing an indisposed Satu Vanska at short notice, violinist Helena Rathbone joined pianist Tamara Anna Cislowska in Spiegel im Spiegel (1978). Their sustained sotto voce playing and well-paced reading established a mood of rapt intensity.

Violinists Kristy Hilton and Veronique Serret impressed with their firm tone and cleanly executed harmonics in Tabula Rasa (1977). Maintaining a refined, delicate accompaniment for the two soloists, the string orchestra later generated an imposing crescendo in Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977).

Not everything worked. Although visually appealing, the background images of stained glass windows (in the choral works) and falling snow (Spiegel im Spiegel) were superfluous.

Even worse was the performance of Fratres for eight cellos (1982). It was a perverse accomplishment to make Part’s music sound ugly and insipid but the ensemble’s poorly blended harmonics and misshapen line achieved exactly that.