“It is enough when a single note is beautifully played,” wrote Arvo Pärt, expounding on his tintinnabuli style, whose music is characterised by the blending of diatonic scales and triadic arpeggios, emulating the lingering overtones produced by a bell – a single moment spread out through time. In developing this language, Pärt – described to me by Madli-Liis Parts, music advisor to the Ministry of Culture, as the grandfather of Estonian contemporary music – established a relationship to sound that was, paradoxically, both ancient and radically new. Here was a music in which tonality becomes the common basis for expression – its strength and purity a manifestation of God; one where asceticism and acoustic sensitivity takes precedence over the more lavish aspects of neoclassicism and serialism that defined Pärt’s earlier compositions.

Kaspars Putniņš and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir © Sven Tupits
Kaspars Putniņš and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
© Sven Tupits

It was this reverence to sound – the urge to explore single moments through time – that united each of the exceptional works presented by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on Saturday evening. “Blossomings”, under the glowing direction of Kaspars Putniņš, was a programme so perfectly suited to the deathless acoustic of Tallin’s St Nicholas’ Church that one felt each piece must surely have been written with the building in mind. In fact, only two – Toivo Tulev’s Ek het jou lief (I Love You) and Helen Tulve’s Nächtliche Gesänge (Nocturnal Songs) – actually were. Both were commissioned by the Estonian Music Days festival, the elder composer Tulev being something of a bridge between Tulve and the previous generation (Pärt, Jaan Rääts et al), whose music was born out of Soviet censorship.

Tulve sets two texts by the German-Jewish poets Paul Celan and Hilde Domin, her shimmering microtones capturing perfectly the moonlit landscape: “Out in the distance from a dream-blackened grove, a spirit-vapour streams to us.” In Tulev’s Ek het jou lief all melodic movement stemmed from a single, unfaltering note shared between sections. The piece represents, in his words, an “acknowledgement of the deficit in understanding, sympathy and willingness to listen that we all encounter in our daily lives”, and through this combination of textural homogeneity and ever-mutating tonality – the constant versus the ephemeral – the music reflects both Tulev’s acceptance and his quest for consolation. The text combines pithy phrases from a multitude of languages, and hats off to both Putniņš and his singers for pulling off such an immense feat of choral articulation. If only I could bottle the luxuriant sound of that bass section and divvy it up between each choral society in Britain – we would be much better for it.

Only one of the works performed – Lukáš Borzik’s Credo – set a sacred text. Using this declaration of faith as his starting point, the Slovakian composer weaves a compelling musical narrative that aims to explore the great mystery of our creation. The most memorable moment of the evening, however, came at the climax of Thomas Simaku’s La Leggiadra Luna (The Beautiful Moon), in which a thundering eight-note chord reverberated around the St Nicholas’ rafters for what felt like an eternity. The magisterial final piece, Blossomings by Belgian composer Wim Henderickx, was originally written for the BBC Singers as a tribute to the late English composer Jonathan Harvey. Breaking formation, the EPCC – joined by trumpeter Indrek Vau – split into six cells spread in a semicircle around the front ten rows of pews. Against the background of a single, dusty chord on the organ, the trumpet introduces each section of text – a mix of Buddhist, Catholic and Sufi poems in whose melding Henderickx emphasises both the power of cultural reconciliation and individual beauty.

Call me old hat, but I’ve always thought the primary appeal in a cappella choral music, when compared to instrumental or electronic, lies in its constraints. If I can, for a moment, use the allegory of rugby’s offside law: a rule put in place for the benefit of both the players and the crowd – but equally one with room for a little bending. The same logic applies to choral music. One is forced to play within the rules of tonality – stray too far from its moorings and the music becomes impossible to sing. The skill therefore lies in knowing how far the rules can be bent, and equally, when to simply let a moment hang – untainted – in space. Pärt understood the power in such music, as do Tulve, and Tulev. After all, sometimes it is enough when a single note is played beautifully.


Timmy's press trip to Tallinn was funded by Estonian Music Days

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