There is a natural, possibly symbiotic, connection between the work of Arvo Pärt and the finest exponents of his choral repertoire. A nation with a long tradition of massed choirs, this small state on the north eastern edge of Europe is home to both Pärt and to the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who have become hugely popular in recent years as a major consequence of the association.
And a full house at London’s Kings Place auditorium on Saturday evening was gifted a two-part performance of rare and pristine clarity. Pärt’s ‘holy minimalism’ – an expression not always levelled favourably – is a slow drift towards the eternal, rendered in solemn accretions, or harmonic layerings, whose effect is cumulative, like prayer. Following a resounding opening of Blessed is the Man, a 1923 setting of the first of the Psalms of David by another Estonian, Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), the choir gave an, in places, hypnotic, reading of several of Pärt’s devotional pieces. If the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are two very well established canticles from Pärt’s canon, and were performed here with power and authority, the third piece, The Deer’s Cry was a triumph of repeated invocation, where the figure of Christ is implored with increasing volume and intensity, as though clarity of diction might yield answers where prayers are cast into silence.
That much overused word ‘transcendent’ generalises and underplays the oceanic sense of the ritualised sublime which is characterised in such heightened harmonic simpatico. After the interval the choir changed gear to embrace some hybrids of Baltic folk and choral traditions. Genuinely beautiful vignettes, the Estonian Calendar Songs, written by Veljo Tormis (1930-2017), celebrate rural narratives of love, loss and longing, and were performed, here, with physical as much as vocal verve. The Swing and Shrovetide Songs sung, respectively, by female and male choristers, before a seamless transition into synthesis in the St. John’s Day Songs, imitate the movement of a swing over water, harmonies rocking to and fro to deliver an affecting, and somehow insouciant, emotional counterpoint.
Insouciant is not a word you would use to describe the magisterial efforts of renowned conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, but there is a real lightness of touch and sense of physical purpose to his choral supervision. No more so than in one of the final songs of the evening, Tormis’ Curse Upon Iron, whose aggressive sonority was temporally punctuated with Kaljuste’s drum, and suggested a host of musical influences, ranging from primal components to African rhythms to shamanic incantations. The received effect was of gathering anxiety as the bold bombast of staccato, in places onomatopoeic, declamation, was counterposed by sudden hiatuses, and gave way to a sense of abandonment to the sheer spectacle of vigorous, directed vocal power.
The near standing ovation the choir received at the end was a fitting reward for an astonishing performance.