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Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir-review

02.13.11
The Guardian

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow

By Kate Molleson

Arvo Pärt's Kanon Pokajanen is based on 6th-century chants sung at daybreak in Orthodox monasteries; replicating that on a dreich Friday night in Glasgow is some art. But Pärt's music operates at its own pace, which is unequivocally without hurry. Vocal lines unfold and repeat according to rules both ancient and invented, and end up sounding suspended in time. The popularity of his so-called "holy minimalism" in this country is perhaps because we crave not its religion but its serenity.

Using Kelvingrove's central hall was a canny move. Gilt in mock-Spanish baroque with the boomy resonance of the best cathedral atriums, it hosted the music's gravitas in sense and sound while avoiding an overtly religious environment. Though the text of the Kanon is in Church Slavonic, the ease of the Estonians' diction made it sound gentle rather than alien. The prayer deals with repentance but the setting is soothing.

Pärt wrote the piece for this choir, and it's hard to imagine it sung by anyone else. Their sound is warmer and more warbly than that of a British church choir, and hints at the characteristic Russian subterranean bass without overegging it. Daniel Reuss conducted with surprising exaggeration considering the overall calm of the thing, but clearly got the desired effect: balance between the voices was sublime, as was the sense of phrasing and, crucially, space; timings were perfectly judged to let the sound fill and fade naturally in the acoustic.

My only complaint is probably an inane one: the concert contained only the Kanon, and at 70-minutes didn't feel long enough. Like a rush-hour yoga class, you had just enough time to be lulled down to pace then suddenly it was over. But fragmentary meditation must be better than none.