Voices: A Festival of Song
Esplanade Concert Hall
13 December 2013)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 December 2013 with the title "Riveting showcase of the human voice".
One of the greatest legacies bestowed on mankind by Western civilisation was the gift of polyphony. The infinite permutations of harmony made available to the ear are the glory of choirs celebrated in Voices, Esplanade’s festival of singing. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, one of the world’s great a cappella vocal ensembles, presented a riveting programme that also reflected its unique and inimitable Baltic heritage.
Its concert, conducted by founding director Tonu Kaljuste (left), had a half each devoted to sacred and secular repertoire. Opening with J.S.Bach’s motet Singet Dem Herrn (Sing To The Lord), the 26 members immediately exerted its authority with sheer wealth of volume, allied by an incisiveness and accuracy that made the complex counterpoint seem like child’s play.
Technically unimpeachable, it was the spirit with which each work was infused that moved, not least also in Brahms’s motet Warum Is Das Licht (Wherefore Is Light), which began with Job’s contrition and sorrow and moved into the sunshine of hope and deliverance in the promises of God.
There were some fine alto solos in Debussy’s Three Songs Of Charles d’Orleans but the most absorbing moments were in two major works by Estonian Veljo Tormis (born 1930, left) sung in the native language. Although secular in nature, his
Day Songs were a celebration of the midsummer solstice
coloured with an earthy and animistic fervour. Chants of “jaanika” and its
variants punctuated these joyous numbers, with the plethoric bath of harmony in
the final St John’s Song was
hauntingly beautiful. St John’s
For Raua Needmine (Curse Upon Iron), the incantations became even more primal and violent, the subject being an indictment of modernism and the loss of old ways. The tongue-twisting words, barely discernible above the ululation of vowels, reached a feverish pitch with conductor-as-shaman Kaluste beating out rhythms on a hide-bound folk-drum. Even Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring has to take a back seat to this exciting ritual as performance.