Review: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

First published in The Herald on 30 August, 2013

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Estonia’s ancient singing tradition has evolved into a choral sound like none other, and today the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is that sound’s greatest exponent. They share certain characteristics with great Russian choirs, no question, but are generally lighter, more supple, perhaps a little more nasal in timbre. What they lack in subterranean bass resonance they make up for in agility and clear textures, and under conductor Daniel Reuss their performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers – backbone of the Russian choral repertoire – was crisp and flowing in music that can easily lose momentum.

The concert opened on home territory. Arvo Pärt has written many works for this choir and the gleaming soundworld of his Two Slavonic Psalms suits them perfectly. The denser, more dissonant inner lines of Three Sacred Hymns by the Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke verged on mushy; the choir sounded most comfortable in the third hymn, the sparse Otche nash (Our Father). The concert’s first half closed with music by a composer virtually unknown outside of Estonia: Cyrillus Kreek was an avid collector of local folk tunes in the early 20th century, and his colourful Psalms of David contain striking harmonies and fluid shifts between small group and whole ensemble textures.

But it was Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil, the Vespers, that provided the meat of this programme, and that stretched the choir to its limits. Some solos felt fragile, some movements missed a broader ensemble sound. But overall the choir’s nimble, folk-like ease carried the performance. This was a Vespers that wore its spirituality lightly and its lyricism well.