Live Reviews: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Arvo Pärt, Kanon Pokajanen
St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin 23 September 2007

It took considerable daring for Galway-based chamber choir Cois Cladaigh to bring the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir to Ireland. It’s a project that intimates an uncompromising attitude to the execution of an ideal, and what finer way to introduce a long season of Arvo Pärt’s music in Ireland – the RTÉ Living Music Festival and Louth Contemporary Music Society both focusing on the Estonian composer’s work in 2008.

A new benchmark for the performance of Pärt’s music in Ireland has been set, and will be difficult to meet. Indeed, so much of the rhythm and pace of the Kanon Pokajanen – ‘Canon of Repentance’ – follows the Old Church Slavonic of the text, that it seems clear that the EPCC has an intuitive understanding of the language that gives them an automatic advantage, not to mention the choir’s pure and deliberate intonation, meticulous dynamic control and the ability to spin the energy of Kanon Pokajanen over its 80 minute duration.

This an intangible music. Detail is immemorable, irrelevant even. The work’s impact lies in its coherence as a musical and spiritual whole. Not only is it greater than the sum of its parts: the sum has rendered the parts invisible. The phrases of Kanon Pokajanen fall like waves with the gentle repetition of brush strokes. Pärt alternates mostly between a strong off-beat figure, which drives the music forward; a dissonant anti-chorale; a hovering, lilting pattern and a combination of unison or octave singing in one voice, and a drone in the remaining voices, often men juxtaposed with women. Vocal registers are treated as blocks: bass is always used as an inflection, occassionaly placed. Entire sections float high in the soprano, alto and tenor.

The choir sat in a circle around the Pro-Cathedral’s free-standing altar, facing inward. With conductor Tõnu Kaljuste in the centre – long-haired and druid-like – the sense that we were present at a serious ritual was inescapable and humbling. It seems impossible to seperate Pärt’s music from its religious associations after all. It’s easy to explain why, for the devout Christian, his work is important. But for those, like me, whom the religious significance passes by like a decent tale never told, it remains a music of transcendence. Perhaps it is simply that, by immersion in Pärt’s music, we are reminded, faintly, what it is to have faith in something.

Published on 1 November 2007

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

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