The world began with a (big) bang; T.S. Eliot famously predicted that it would end “not with a bang but a whimper”. To launch their 2019 season, the Australian Chamber Orchestra avoided both bangs and whimpers: instead, their programme was more in the nature of a prayer. The pairing of Bach and Pärt, two composers most famous for their religious music, invited the listener to invest in a sense of the transcendent, the otherworldly. Now exultant, now serenely contemplative, the alternations between early 18th- and late 20th-century sound worlds revealed many subtle affinities, turning this collaborative concert with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir an immersive experience.

Richard Tognetti © Gary Heery
Richard Tognetti
© Gary Heery

The moody blue light at the start established the meditative atmosphere for Pärt’s Da pacem Domine, sung by the choir in front of the seated instrumentalists (an ACO rarity). The slow-moving lines and overheld harmonies, fingerprints of the Estonian composer’s later style, created a sound world that mimicked something of the reverberation of a vast, vaulted cathedral. Our normal concert etiquette has much in common with certain religious rites: audiences sit silent and receptive, communing with whatever world the music opens up for them. Here, this feeling was intensified by the lack of distracting applause between pieces, choreographed by Tognetti holding his hands aloft as each one ended, allowing the music to proceed in a barely interrupted flow.

Bach’s Komm Jesu, komm and the other three motets performed are usually heard a cappella (unaccompanied), but here the ACO strings provided backing for the singers, now relocated to the back of the stage and separated into two choirs. This doubling was done thoughtfully – the bouncy “komm, komm” figure was matched by pizzicato, and other sections were sung without any instruments, or with fewer instruments to each part – but occasionally I felt that Bach’s fleet vocal lines were a bit clogged by the extra instrumental sound. This was particularly the case in the virtuosic Singet dem Herrn, the lengthy multi-sectional motet which finished the first half. As voice after voice enters imitating the fast runs, the texture becomes very dense even in the clearest performance; here, all one got from the later bass entries was a feeling of energy rather than a sense of what the individual notes might be. Between the two motets came Pärt’s Summa, which felt like a palette cleanser. Unconducted by Tognetti, the repetitive lines induced a state of meditative detachment, the whole piece amounting to study in shades of grey.

The second half opened with the Toccata from Pärt’s Collage on B-A-C-H. One of umpteen composers after Johann Sebastian himself to take the letters of Bach’s surname and turn them into the equivalent musical notes, Pärt used this as a way of producing a dissonant study, where each line had its own logic seemingly at odds with that of other parts. Although it reached a point of comparative stability with the final B minor chord, the bright start of Bach’s Lobet den Herrn in C major felt like a release into a happier realm. This was followed by Der Geist hilft, where the vocal lines were neatly dovetailed between the two choirs. It was a slight irritant that the visual separation of the vocal forces into right and left was not matched by the instrumental forces, as the stereophonic effects are one of the pleasures of these motets.

The only dilution of the Pärt-Bach dyad was the insertion of Galina Grigorjeva’s In Paradisum and Peter Sculthorpe’s Djilile before the final item. The lights were dimmed for the former piece, whose sustained sound world felt kin to that of her Estonian compatriot. Solo voices emerged like spot colours occasionally out of the texture, with only a few imperfections in intonation disturbing the pleasure of this work. The opening of Djilile in this string arrangement gave cellist Timo Veikko-Valve a passionate and committed rhapsody. Later sections returned to a more contemplative mood, with chant-like solos from violinists Satu Vänskä and Aiko Goto.

The Kyrie from the Berliner Messe is a miracle of economy, vividly illustrating Pärt’s ‘holy minimalist’ style. The music seems to move in and out of focus, as the sliding lines create momentary dissonance which resolves. Throughout it all, the choir’s beautiful sound was in evidence, from the wafting upper lines in the Kyrie, to the tenor solo in the Alleluia, to the soprano-less sound of the Sanctus. This last part was definitely the emotional heart of the work in this performance, with the lengthy spaces between the phrases an invitation to contemplate the numinous. The orchestra created nice colouristic shading; for instance, the deliberately matte tone of the strings in the Agnus gave way to a much fuller sound at the peroration. And this is how the concert ended: no bangs, no whimpers, in an atmosphere of serene transcendence.

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