The first half of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s concert under Kaspars Putnins at the National Concert Hall last Wednesday was devoted to music by Estonia’s most celebrated composer Arvo Pärt. The selection began with Solfeggio, a work composed in 1963 when Pärt was an avant-gardist in the world of Soviet music. His current style was more than a decade away, and his country’s independence further away again. Pärt himself has described the work as “simply a scale…that takes the form of a four-part cluster, in that every note is sustained into the following note”.
It’s also a serial work that uses the notes of the scale as its repeating series. And, most immediately for today’s listeners, it’s an exercise in choral texturing in which the inherent dissonances of the material are cushioned by the sheer beauty of the slow-moving choral lines. Wednesday’s performance made the choral pedigree of the Estonian choir immediately obvious. The singing of this work, which can be seen as a surprising precursor of the later Pärt, was controlled, lucid, reserved, even slightly detached. The works by Pärt were presented in mostly chronological order. Solfeggio was followed by Summa from 1977 and the Magnificat from 1989, then three works from the 1990s and the Nunc dimittis of 2001. The last of Pärt’s works to be sung, however, was Dopo la vittoria, a piece commissioned to mark the 1,600th anniversary of the death of Saint Ambrosius in 1996. The frequent springing rhythmic lightness of the music set its mood quite apart from the rest of this Pärt selection. The harmonic world changed after the interval, with Irish composer Conor O’Reilly’s Pie Jesu and Angus Dei heralding styles of greater warmth and more overt emotionalism. The choir worked through pieces by Cyrillus Kreek and Galina Grigorjeva, before reaching a theatrical if still somewhat understated peak in the dramatic ritual of Veljo Tormis’s Raua needmine (Curse upon iron).