Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Review: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

with Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Tõnu Kaljuste conducting
Nov. 3, University of Richmond

Opening their current North American tour, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra divided their program between works of two Estonia's most prominent composers, Arvo Pärt and Toivo Tulev, and Vivaldi's "Beatus vir" for double choir and two orchestras.

Tulev's "Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!" (2006), an a cappella choral piece, balances soprano calls and lower-register responses from the full ensemble. A chant-like theme runs interference through spiky harmonies that seem to shade the rejoicing with spiritual ambivalence. Although the piece has been in this choir's repertory for two years, this performance sounded tentative, with stray patches of ragged ensemble.

The choir and orchestra followed the Tulev with three pieces by Pärt, in which the chorus and orchestra sounded audibly well-versed.

"Ein Waldfahrtslied" ("Pilgrims' Song") is a setting of Psalm 121 ("I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help") that echoes Schubert in an ominously rustic orchestration. The chorus sings monotonally, but expressively.

"L'abbé Agathon," the tale of an abbot tested by the Angel of the Lord disguised as a roadside leper, has been enlarged from its original setting for soprano and eight cellos to an orchestrated piece with soprano and baritone soloists (portraying the leper and abbot) and a narrating chorus. The orchestration calls for largely vibrato-free strings, often sounding like an antique consort of viols.

"Da pacem Domine," one of Pärt's shorter and more accessible liturgical works, is slow-motion steady state music with traditionally "churchy" harmonies voiced in long-note sighs by chorus and orchestra.

"Beatus vir" is one of Vivaldi's most brilliant church compositions, full of swirling, fast-paced figures and exuberant vocal writing. Kaljuste led a brisk and strongly accented performance, nicely balanced among the four sections of singers and instrumentalists.