“New Iron and steel… precise powerful killers armed with nuclear warheads.” Thus go the lines of Veljo Tormis’ Curse upon the Iron and I confess they sent a shiver down my spine as they seem to speak with prophetic clarity of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Tonight’s concert in Dublin’s National Concert Hall featured the versatile and euphonious Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir with its founder and conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, singing an all Estonian programme. Five pieces by Arvo Pärt formed the first half, and Tormis’ songs made up the second. While it was undoubtedly intriguing to hear the wide repertoire of these two celebrated composers, one longed to hear the EPCC tackle something else other than contemporary Estonian repertoire.
Nonetheless, they certainly showed us their extraordinary vocal range and control. I was immediately struck by the well-crafted sound they forged in Pärt’s Magnificat, showcasing his famous tintinnabuli style – a fusing of two contrasting voices into a single reverberant line. The soprano line rippled above the shimmering layers of the other voices creating great peace. From the depths of the well of sound, one bass voice started the Nunc Dimittis before being joined gradually by other voices to form the outline of a hallowed D minor chord. The choir burst forth with strength and power at the climax of “lumen ad revelationem” as the key magically changes from minor to major.
The Deer’s Cry has two Irish connections. It was commissioned by Louth Contemporary Music society in 2008. Its text is based on the lorica (a prayer for God’s help against evil) of St Patrick. Tonal and sung in English, the EPCC brought a meditative quality to the lilting chords of this motet. The EPCC showed their sure-footedness with the challenging leaps of the lively Dopo la Vittoria, while there was a mesmerising quality to the Kontakion from Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen, a work composed to celebrate the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral.
If the first half had the rarefied atmosphere of Church music, the second was much more relaxed and earthy. Tormis’ compositions, or at least the majority of those performed here, seemed to glean inspiration from traditional Baltic folk songs. Kaljuste also took a more informal approach, sitting on a raised stool to the side, and chatting in between songs and delighting us with his laconic wit.
The Swing Songs consisted of six songs for female voices and as the women weaved their polyphonic lines and slide up their onomatopoeic sounds, they swayed to and fro in gentle rhythmic fashion. The final foot-stomping Apple Tree song gave way to next series of Shrovetide songs, this time sung by male voices. Humour was never far from the surface here, Kaljuste bopping up and down to the first one, looking at us as he gave the odd wave of his baton to the choir.
The St John’s Days Songs featured seven songs for the festival of midsummer. The EPCC caught the sinister quality of the Fire incantation with its rapid spoken words, growing and then declining into a whisper. The final notes of St John’s Song were very effectively managed, with thin wisps of sound appearing, disappearing and then reappearing.
The Curse Upon Iron was quite the tour de force. For this, Kaljuste took up the Shamam drum and kept up a sinister, constant and at times frightening beat. The EPCC really let rip here with its rapid-fire speech and odd evocative vowel moans. It was shocking and barbaric and utterly compelling.