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Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Cadogan Hall

The Arts Desk

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir: Compelling champions of their national music

By Alexandra Coghlan

We are spoiled for choral choice in Britain. With the likes of The Sixteen, The King’s Singers, Polyphony and I Fagiolini just the start of the roster of talent, and an amateur choral scene of serious heft, the temptation is to look no further than the Channel for our choral kicks. Such is the growing presence of the Baltic nations however (and particularly Estonia, with its greatest musical champion, Arvo Pärt), that this rival tradition is increasingly making its presence felt. Greatest among a nation of choirs is unquestionably the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who last night took us on a tour of their musical heritage.

In a programme otherwise dedicated to music from Estonia and Finland, Mendelssohn’s posthumously published Three Psalms Op 78 for double choir seemed an odd choice to open – not least because the episodic idiom saw the ensemble less than at ease. Shifting freely among styles, with elements from German folk and church traditions, as well as echoes of more archaic polyphonic writing, there seemed little basis here for dialogue with the spacious, contemporary consonance of the Baltic repertoire.

‘Ambassadors for arguably the most exciting choral tradition currently emerging from Europe, the EPCC are an impressive force’

With a clarity to their forward diction that risked impeding Mendelssohn’s lines, the ensemble articulated each episode crisply enough, but left the transitions rather exposed. The effect of rather disjointed narrative was heightened further by the solo voices that pass in and out of the texture, and which refused to settle. While the massed choral sound was impressively anchored, neither solo soprano nor tenor matched it for focus, with some bizarrely bulging phrasing from the tenor in particular marring the solo/choral exchanges of Psalm 22.

With the expressive homophony of Sibelius’s Rakastava (more familiar in its string transcription), we were listening to a new ensemble. The blend which is at the core of the EPCC’s sound became all-important – the platform on which Sibelius’s more colourful descriptive effects could rest securely. A sort of miniature folk cantata, Rakastava is inflected with charming modal and textural touches. Passing the melodic conch to the men, Sibelius embroiders their storytelling with a repeated refrain “ei-laa” in the women’s voices, multiple melodic cells circling insistently, held in impeccable balance by director Daniel Reuss.

With the music of Arvo Pärt so much a part of our own choral repertoire now, hearing it performed by an Estonian group took on something of an anthropological fascination. Offering two different examples – the rapt simplicity of his Magnificat and the more weighty orthodoxy of sections from the Kanon pokajanen (Canon of Repentance) – it was the latter that really made sense of the particular tone quality of the ensemble, for whom the work was written. Showcasing the gloriously thick, filled-out sound in the extended lines and sustained triadic hum of harmony, the work’s anti-drama was minutely calibrated by Reuss, sustaining the single emotional trajectory that (in the full work) must endure for over 80 minutes.

For my money, however, the most exciting Estonian works of the evening came from Cyrillus Kreek. Draping his national sound around a skeleton of Western art music, his four Psalms of David move through distinctly Russian-influenced shades for Psalm 22 (all parallel octaves and intense homophony), rather more French-style swooning and cluster chords for Psalm 104, before shifting to a more vernacular folk idiom for Onnis on inimene and concluding with the suspension-laden majesty of Psalm 141. His folk-song settings showed similar textural flexibility, though connected by a rather more coherent stylistic framework. At their best in thick homophony, the EPCC made a compelling case for Estonia’s “other” great composer.

There is no doubt of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s quality, nor of their differences to an English equivalent ensemble. Favouring a rooted, collective texture, it was the counterpoint of the Mendelssohn that perhaps exposed their weakness, a tendency to prioritise blend over all other concerns. Last night was not, I suspect, this choir at their very best, but as ambassadors for arguably the most exciting choral tradition currently emerging from Europe the EPCC are still an impressive force.