For those who love the additional linguistic dimension offered by a parallel-text programme, this concert was a delight: four items by four composers from two countries – in three languages.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir © Kaupo Kikkas
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
© Kaupo Kikkas

The stage of a full Usher Hall lay bare except for 28 shoulder-high music stands, one for each member of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and, facing them, one at conductor height for Daniel Reuss. Dressed entirely in black, two arced rows (fourteen of each gender) greeted the audience before opening with Arvo Pärt’s Two Slavonic Psalms (1984, revised 1997).

The language of the text was Old Church Slavonic which, I discovered from Martin Anderson’s learned notes, was “systematized by Saints Cyril and Methodius in their 9th-century translation of the Bible”. The musical language was Pärt’s much-loved “tintinnabuli” style. I was struck immediately by the balance and soon by the sopranos’ effortless high As, which seemed very courageous in an opening item. One can only imagine their rigorous warm-up regime backstage. Psalm 117 was the more animated of the two although I use the word advisedly as scarcely anything in the entire programme exceeded moderato. The more tranquil Psalm 131 had two appearances of a beautifully harmonised “Amin” (Amen) in an ethereally light, high register.

The relative simplicity of Pärt’s harmony was offset by the more dense, hazy sounds of Alfred Schnittke’s Three Sacred Hymns (1983). At times it seemed as though some chords contained eight different notes. When the music returned to simpler textures, one could hear just how precise the choir's tuning was. Towards the end of the opening, “Bogoroditse Dyevo, raduisya” (“Hail to the Virgin Mary”) there was a lovely, surprising harmonic turn which reminded me of Marcel Cellier’s beautiful arrangements for “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares”. “Gospodi Iisusye Khristye” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”) was much more full-bodied, much more Russian. For the first time we began to have an idea of just how much power was at this choir’s disposal. The Romanised Russian language in the programme afforded an opportunity to enjoy Schnittke’s “word painting” skills in the otherwise stately “Otche Nash” (“Our Father”). The prayer’s serene harmony underwent alarming and sustained subsidence on the word “iskusheniye” (“temptation”), before deliverance from evil restored stability.

The music of Cyrillus Kreek (1889–1962) was entirely new to me and, according to Martin Anderson’s notes, to most people outside Estonia. Sung in Estonian, the musical language of Psalms of David was the most folkloric of the programme, especially the delightful Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man”. His 1914 setting of Psalm 22 featured an arresting change of register which the choir delivered beautifully. The forsaken author having described great trials and indignities, the low, thick harmonies suddenly change and with them the tone of the choir on the words “Aga sina, Jehoova, mu Jumal, päästa mu hing!” (“But you, o Lord, deliver my soul!”) I suspect that many, like me, looked up from their programmes wondering if a different choir had appeared.

The entire second half was devoted to Rachmaninov’s 1915 All Night Vigil (Vespers). This fifteen movement monument to Russian Orthodoxy was magnificently performed. Vocal range was very impressive, the sopranos once again reaching thigh As while basses reached down to several low Cs and, on three occasions, low B flats. The strength in these low notes was remarkable, particularly at the end of the fifth movement, “Nine otpushchayeshi” (“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace”), the piece Rachmaninov wished to have performed at his own funeral.

Although the evening was very much a team effort, there were two significant tenor and alto solos. The latter, with a voice which was rich, generous and unstrained, feature extensively in the second movement, “Blagoslovi, dushe moya” (“Bless The Lord, O my soul”).

Reuss’ and the choir’s sense of pace was displayed to great effect in the sixth movement, “Bogoroditse Devo” (“Rejoice, O Virgin”). Beginning with simple but lovely harmonies, it builds to an emotional climax over nearly three minutes. The simplicity of this movement was wonderfully offset by the following “Shestopsalmiye” (“Glory to God in the Highest”), which featured thrilling clusters on the repeated word “Slava” (“Glory”).

The audience seemed rapt throughout this piece as they had across the evening. This was all the more impressive due to the programme’s singleness of purpose. In an age of reported threat to the attention span, it was heartwarming to witness a couple of thousand people submit to this very still and largely non-visual experience. The demeanour of Reuss’ and the choir was the antithesis of showbiz, presenting music they love simply and seriously. Responding humbly to sustained, warm applause, Reuss simply placed hand on heart as he bowed. That said it all.

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