The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is possibly the finest choir i’ve ever heard, though their latest album (released by BIS) is more than usually demanding. Not, though, with respect to the music of Estonia’s most renowned composer, Arvo Pärt, represented on this disc by his setting of the evening canticles Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Performances and recordings of these pieces (particularly the Magnificat) are plentiful, so it’s no small thing when i say that this is, hands down, the best rendition of them i have ever heard. Conductor Kaspars Putniņš avoids any kind of pushing of the tempo, allowing the music to move along at its own pace, and he also makes no excessive dynamic demands on the choir either. The result is quintessential Pärt, solemn and passionate, capturing the ‘inverted praise’ of the Mag and the beautiful mix of tiredness and relief in the Nunc, made all the more overwhelmingly intense due to the amazing clarity of this recording (quite an achievement considering it was recorded in Tallinn’s reverberant Niguliste Church), making the liminal relationship between consonance and dissonance in the harmonies achingly exquisite.
The demands i mentioned come from the rest of the disc, devoted to Alfred Schnittke‘s Psalms of Repentance. In terms of sentiment, taken as a whole they are almost indigestible, being as they are burdened in extremis by the Christian church’s central pivot: sin. i’d go so far as to venture that the expression of self these works articulate is so abject as to beg some serious questions about how healthy the faith from which they sprang can honestly be regarded. The texts come from the writings of a 16th Century monk, and Schnittke’s response to their bleak admissions and adjurations is a pure essay in lamentation and melancholy. Notwithstanding my last few sentences, many of the twelve pieces are staggeringly moving, Schnittke often setting up soundworlds where, despite the choir’s activity and movement, the music exists in an apparent stasis, perhaps hinting at a timelessness and/or a divinity permeating everything. The fourth psalm, ‘My Soul, Why Are You in a State of Sin?’ stands out due to the sheer power of its intimacy, like staring at oneself in a mirror; the eighth, ‘If You Wish to Overcome Unending Sorrow’, displays a lovely sense of impassioned unity, its closing sentiments a rare moment of radiant hope: “Do not despair”; and the eleventh, ‘I Entered This Life of Tears a Naked Infant’, employs the most unbelievably spellbinding close harmonies. As with the Pärt, the performance of the Schnittke by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is staggeringly transparent, which, for better or worse, exacerbates the Psalms’ impact. Yet while there’s something unavoidably depressing and wearying about the texts’ fundamental outlook, Schnittke manages to locate penumbral light in these pools of otherwise infinite black. And sometimes, even when he doesn’t, as in the wordless humming of the final psalm – the whole choir seemingly suspended in liquid – the hypnotic effect he creates is absolutely stunning.
Look further: A blog 5:4
Dr Simon Cummings Ph.D. M.Mus. B.Mus.(Hons) composer/researcher