Twenty-seven mesmerizing voices–and music of sustained beauty that’s sustenance for the soul.


The vaunted Estonia Philharmonic chamber Choir entranced some hundreds of spectators last night at Metropolitan United Church, that staunch Methodist bastion on Queen, with glorious singing that will reverberate in the memories of listeners for a long time.


The choir, conducted by English artistic director Paul Hillier (who founded the Hilliard Ensemble), was performing the first of two concerts under the auspices of Soundstreams and CBC Radio 2.

The mostly youthful choristers, whose repertoire also extends to Gregorian chant and late Baroque, delivered eight works by mostly alive composers from the Baltic region with focused attention. They sang in English and Latin, as well as their home language, and this, their third visit to Toronto, may have been their best.


The shadow of Orthodox Church liturgy was apparent, but the Baltic region has deep wellsprings of creative art on which to draw, and this choir’s concerts and recordings show that Arvo Part should not be the only regional composer familiar to western ears.

Hillier’s pinpoint control was evident from Estonian Cyrillus Kreek’s “Three Psalms of David”, which made a fine opening. Precisely layered and featuring deliciously rich resonance in the crucial low registers. It was followed by (Estonia’s) Part, the eloquent simplicity of his “Two Slavic Psalms tastefully emphasized, its purity never allowed become merely plain.


Perhaps the second ranking composer from Estonia is VeljoTormis, but his “Kullerva’s Message,” drawn from mythic tales of long ago and sung in English was more novelty than enlightenment.

All this serious Baltic music allows little interpretive choice and this relatively frisky, martial piece done with just 16 singers in English was often strident. It was the weakest point of the evening.


Yet that’s weak compared to the truly glowing elsewhere, such as the succeeding “Alleluiah” of Lithuania’s Algirdas Martinaitis with polyphony so accomplished it left this scribe in awe.


Russia’s Alfred Schnittke drew on Orthodox liturgy for his “Three Sacred Songs,” the first known to the West as “Ave Maria”: the last as the Lord’s Prayer.

Here refined sensibility was in place, neatly balancing intensity and dignity; and offering palpable beauty with the bonus of scrupulous diction.


Russian-born Galina Grigorjeva is now an Estonian, her “On Leaving” featuring a brooding soulfulness that suited this examination of the moment of death with poetry and polyphony based on prayer texts.

It was deeply spiritual, an excellent high tenor soloist most affecting and the ultra-deep basses fathoming the bleakness of it all.


Denmark’s Per Norgard has found a majestic flow as well as a devilishly complex set of time signatures for his “Winter Hymn” that was dispatched with a unique fervour, but it was matched in appeal by the choir’s profound reading in Latin of Estonian composer Urmas Sisask’s five-part “Gloria Patri.” The frequent result were passages of serene loveliness.


Tomorrow night at the same venue at 7:30, the choir, joined by Canada’s Elmer Iseler Singers, will perform a mixed program that includes new Canadian works and the North American premiere of Henryk Gorecki’s epic “Salve Sidus Polinarum.”