Tuesday 30 January 2018

"A singing nation": Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Writing a brief post in the middle of the night, as I'm still on something of a high from hearing the wonderful Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir perform at Milton Court - the Barbican's young and sprightly smaller-scale venue - this evening. (I owe the title of this post to Estonia's Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, no less, who was a guest of honour at tonight's concert.)

Ever since taking a trip to Tallinn some years ago, I've had a bit of a long distance love affair with Estonia. Mrs Specs and I still haven't managed to realise our plan to go back and see more of the country - but in the meantime I've been keeping the flame alive largely through enjoying a handsome amount of Estonian music. (Particularly helpful here was the superb Eesti Fest at King's Place in London, curated by Fiona Talkington of BBC Radio 3's 'Late Junction'.)

This hasn't been strictly limited to classical works. For example, Estonia is home to some brilliantly individual folk/black metal bands, among them Loits, Human Ground, Taak and Metsatöll. I managed to see Metsatöll live when they came over to the UK, and they were astonishing. Most of the members looked as you might expect metallers to look: all hair and guitar. Yet one of them took the stage seemingly wearing every type imaginable of Estonian traditional instrument, overlaying the riffs with all manner of exotic (to me) sounds and textures.

But we're concerned with classical here. The most widely-known (and perhaps as a result, most widely-loved) Estonian composer is almost certainly Arvo Pärt. But joining him on the must-listen roll-call are Tõnu Kõrvits, Cyrillus Kreek, Veljo Tormis and Errki-Sven Tüür.

(Photo of the EPCC by Kaupo Kikkas, from the Choir's website.)

Tonght's concert was one of the year's first to commemorated Estonia's 100th birthday - and the EPCC had chosen to perform a more or less all-Estonian programme. (The exceptions were two pieces by Jonathan Harvey - both quite lovely but, in my opinion, slightly out of place.)

The first half was given over to the hypnotic serenity of Pärt's music, highlights for me being the 'Magnificat' and 'Nunc dimittis' that appear on the Choir's latest recording, along with the powerfully direct 'The Woman with the Alabaster Box'. These glorious rendition inspired a somewhat devout response from the audience, held rapt, with no applause given (or invited) until the interval. The second half was a bit more chilled out - and gave full rein to the Choir's versatility. Alongside the Harvey, we heard a pair of gorgeous Psalm settings by Kreek, and finally two pieces by Tormis. The closing song was a tour de force: the mythological, almost surreal 'Raua needmine', or 'Curse upon Iron', which gave us a pounding, ritualistic drum (one of the tenors having the time of his life), underpinning evocative and at times terrifying vocal effects. A stunning climax to an evening characterised by conductor Kaspars Putniņš's ability to draw a wide range of dynamics from his singers, allowing many of them the chance to shine as individuals amid the collective sound.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC iPlayer Radio this evening, and will stay on line for a month: so broadly speaking, if you're reading this before the end of February 2018, you can find the concert here. Please take the time to give it a listen.

Since this post will be around for much longer than a month, I tried to find versions of the pieces in tonight's set already recorded by the EPCC, to put together as a Spotify playlist. I was partially successful - here are eight selections, giving you a handy 50-minute digest. Hope you end up loving this choir as much as I do...

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