Arvo Part: A Sacred Journey, Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, April 7

Sydney Opera House’s occasional series “The Composers” has clearly struck a chord: the Concert Hall was packed, with even the choir stalls full on a Sunday night. They were there to hear the music of iconic Estonian composer Arvo Part.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, under the baton of Estonian conductor Tonu Kaljuuste, lent the endeavour a certain authenticity: the composer wrote, rewrote and refined works such as his Seven Magnificat Antiphons (1991) and the recent Adam’s Lament (2009) with the choir. Adam’s Lament was a fascinating amalgam of much that had gone before, with wisps of the composer’s layered scales and triads hiding in the more complex structure. The choir dealt with the close and sometimes grinding harmonies with assurance, responding to Kaljuste’s energising beat with a gutsy roar in the climaxes.

Part’s earlier works were represented by works which have reached a wide audience via film scores and broadcasts. Helena Rathbone (replacing an indisposed Satu Vanska) picked out the delicate minimalism of Speigl im Speigl with icy poise, accompanied by crystalline drops of sound from pianist Tamara Anna Cislowska.

The Sydney Symphony allstars gave us the lush, mesmerising wash of sound that is Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Eight cellists, led by Catherine Hewgill, found a kaleidoscope of timbres and dynamics in the meditative Fratres, but a stable sense of ensemble eluded them. The highlight was Tabula Rasa, Part’s concerto for two violins, performed here by Kirsty Hilton and Veronique Serret. They captured the liquid brilliance of pure sound, chasing each other across four octaves in a gripping demonstration of virtuosity and life.

For such a profoundly honest composer, the stage-y gestures – dimmed lights, projections of stained glass windows, a windswept soloist and falling snow in Speigl im Speigl – risked feeling like a gimmick. They just about got away with it. More important, however, was getting the basics right, like having the music on the stands before the start of Tabula Rasa.

As the composer himself knows, sometimes Less is More.

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