Live Reviews: Baltic Voices in Ireland

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dundalk, Co. Louth
14 February 2008

The old joke, of course, is that you wait forever for a bus and then two come along at once. While the contagious euphoria channeled by festivals is energising, fatigue permeates the aftermath. As the dust settled on five days of Arvo Pärt’s music, with festivals in Louth and Dublin, I had the sense that what there was to say about his music had been well said, and necessarily so, but that it does not need to be said so forcefully again for some time. A unique form of idolatry was creeping in: the composer cum high priest seemed expected to produce miracles for fawning worshippers. Could it be that, for now, we have Pärt out of our system?

The Dundalk leg of Baltic Voices in Ireland, featuring the State Choir Latvija, was truly mammoth – a concert of three halves. The experience was exhausting, but this spawns its own form of listening, and it is good the Louth Contemporary Music Society is not afraid to push the limits of its audience’s concentration.

Four commissioned choral works all set Christian texts. Latvian George Pelecis’ setting of the Joseph Mary Plunkett text I See His Blood Upon the Rose was a drama of repeated cells and disjunct lines. (I missed the impact of Pelecis’ earlier work Death is Defeated by Death, though many were convinced by its ironically bright semitone lilt, and protracted Alleluia.) His compatriot Rihards Dubra’s Hail Queen of Heaven with large melodic leaps, erratic harmony and rich bass shadings, was a busy piece in marked contrast to Pärt’s spacious Da Pacem Domine which immediately followed. The rhythmic vitality of Pärt’s new work The Deer’s Cry, which set the text of St Patrick’s breastplate, confirmed that there is still something raw to Pärt’s composition. It was invaded by an unlikely blues quality and ended before an expected final cadence, as if dangling mid-air. But most impressive was Deirdre McKay’s Commendo Spiritum Meum, which splashed with the freshness of pulsating waves. It describes a pattern of expansion and residue: a unison hum fans lightly outward within a limited range, then the texture dilutes. Lingering fragments of harmony are like little thoughts of the past, briefly seeking permanence in a fleeting world. This writing promises a much larger choral work from the composer – with this piece there was a sense of a life stopped short.

Ioana Petcu-Colan (violin) and Michael McHale (piano) presented five pieces as a continuous set. There was a deep resonance from McHale’s piano and there were magical moments during Fratres when the bells of the cathedral tolled in sympathy with the music. Fratres, in fact, seems a work entirely concerned with such integration. A series of wildly contrasting variations on a common harmonic pattern, it is a statement that the incarnate (style) is nothing; a universal unity is all.

The choir, now behind us in the gallery and joined by the cathedral organ, wound down the concert with some of Pärt’s better-known works such as the Beatitudes and Bogoróditse Djévo, but also stranger works such as the An den Wassern zu Babel saßen wir und weinten and the ritualistic De Profundis. The former vocalises only the vowels of the German text. In a piece so concerned with loss of identity, it’s notable that Pärt holds fast to his, due to the rhythm’s subservience to the (invisible) text.

The State Choir Latvija, under the alternating hands of Fergus Sheil and Maris Sirmais, handled the austere trough and peak of Pärt’s music with appropriate thoughtlessness. Petcu-Colan and McHale’s playing shone similarly, most notably in Spiegel im Spiegel, a deceptively simple piece that requires acute control to attain unclichéd stillness.

Published on 1 March 2008

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly is a composer and a director of Ergodos, a production company and record label.

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