An Eastern Vigil: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Daniel Reuss, Gilad Atzmon at LSO St Lukes
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 22 2014
Star rating: 4.5
Stunning opening concert of the London A Cappella Festival from Estonian visitors

The London A Cappella Festival opened last night (22 January 2014) with a performance by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC), conductor Daniel Reuss, and saxophonist Gilad Atzmon at LSO St. Luke’s. An Eastern Vigil presented us with a hypnotic sequence of sacred works inspired by the Orthodox tradition with music by Arvo Part, Alfred Schnittke, Cyrillus Kreek, Vasyl Barvinsky, Nikolai Kedrov and Sergei Rachmaninov. These were interspersed with improvisations from Gilad Atzmon.
The music was performed continuously, without breaks for applause. As the house lights were right down, making it difficult to read the programmes, there was an element of the innocent ear in listening to the programme though naturally Part’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis stood out as familiar. The front section of the audience was seat at tables, cabaret style, adding to the club-like atmosphere of the event.

Proceedings started with an fluidly atmospheric improvisation on the saxophone from Gilad Atzmon, the Israeli multi-instrumentalist whose credits include a solo album Exile which was BBC Jazz Album of the Year in 2003 and he has recorded and performed with artists such as Ian Dury and Sinead O’Connor.

The choir opened with Arvo Part’s Two Slavonic Psalms (setting psalms 117 and 131 in Church Slavonic). These two short pieces by Part date from 1984 and sound rather unlike much of his output. The performance from the choir was technically superb with Part’s writing being beautifully realised. They followed this with Alfred Schnittke’s Three Sacred Hymns which date from 1983-84, the period he was writing the Faust Cantata and the Third String Quartet. They were written at the request of the conductor Valery Polyansky for his choir the Russian State Symphonic Cappella The Three Sacred Hymns set three prayers from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, Hail to the Holy Virgin, Lord Jesus Son of God, Our Father. The pieces are richly scored with a wonderful feeling of multiple polyphonies happening. The results, in the hands of Reuss and EPCC were simply stupendous with the choir bringing fine flexibility to the music.

Following another improvisation from Atzmon, we heard Arvo Part’s Magnificat, an austerely beautiful work written in the composer’s tintinabuli style 1989. Whilst one could admire the technical skill which went into the perfect placement of Part’s chords, it was the overall grasp of the spirit of the piece which really impressed. They followed this with Part’s Nunc Dimittis which dates from 2001 and was written for the choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh. Again in a beautifully realised and finely flexible performance.

The choir next sang a pair of psalm settings by the Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek (1889 – 1962). Kreek trained at the St Petersburg Conservatoire just before the Russian Revolution and then spent his working life in Estonia. He collected folk-songs extensively and these are central to his music, his psalm settings have a distinctly folk-ish tinge but with some interesting chromatic harmonies. The choir made these quite austere works rather hauntingly lovely.

Vasyl Barvinsky (1888 – 1963) was one of the first Ukrainian composers to gain world-wide recognition, though I have to admit that I had not come across his name before. His Oh, What a Wonder (Shcho to za predivo) seems to be a Ukrainian carol, it was s simple but very effective piece.The setting of the Lord’s Prayer (Otsche Nash) by the Russian composer Nikolai Kedrov (1871 – 1940) is one his best known piece. Kedrov was also an operatic baritone, singing at the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, in addition to writing liturgical music.

Following a final stunning solo from Atzmon, the choir finished with the final chorus from Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil (Vespers) in a performance notable for its light flexibility with a lovely up-front vocal sound. This effectively summed up the choir’s beautifully focussed and flexible style and brought the concert to a stunning conclusion.