Monday, 16 December 2013


Voices: A Festival of Song
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (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.

Estonia’s most famous living composer Arvo Pärt (born 1935, right) was represented by three very different works sung to the manner born. His Magnificat (1989) in Latin showcased his highly recognisable style, of bare unison passages, narrow harmonic intervals, juxtaposition of extremes in vocal registers and his trademark bell sonorities or tintinnabuli. Virgencita (2012) was a short Marian prayer in Spanish while Dopo La Vittoria (1996) had an unusual folk-like quality alongside the prayers of two saints.

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 St John’s 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.

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.

Calm was restored with the serenity of a sole encore, a lovely hummed arrangement of Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen. It is Christmas after all.   

Concert photographs courtesy of Esplanade Theatres By The Bay.

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