The theme of this year’s Estonian Music Days, “Green sound?”, in addition to permeating the content of many of the works performed, also extended to the performance spaces, all of which were festooned with arrays of plants, flowers and assorted other foliage, as well as to the featured composers and performers, all of whom were copiously rewarded with bouquets, and even to the audiences, issued with free packets of seeds at every event(!). For the closing concert of this year’s festival, the intrusion of vegetation completely transformed the industrial interior of the Kultuurikatel (Tallinn’s former power plant) into a lush environment enhanced with scatterings of green light. This was the setting for the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s recital of works that each in their own way aspired to something of the same lushness.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir © Peeter Langovits
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
© Peeter Langovits

Not so much in Arvo Pärt’s Summa, a work that operates like watching the water’s edge at the shoreline, projecting itself to different extents and intensities, imperceptibly changing. The Woman with the Alabaster Box, on the other hand, although more problematic due to the awkward friction between the narrative context and Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ method – which here becomes mannered rather than transparent – nonetheless arrives at some rich harmonies in its latter stages, which the choir responded to with almost indulgent enthusiasm (the basses, down in positively Russian registral depths, were particularly impressive).

Helen Tulve’s Lost, receiving its world première, sent out mixed messages. The first of the three movements, setting US poet David Wagoner, was masterful, sombre and powerful (all the more so due to its dynamic restraint), embodying both a sense of fear and trepidation yet also a pervading sense of peace. Put another way, the music seemed to encourage one not to be afraid while acknowledging fear’s very real proximity. However, the keen effect of this opening movement was slightly diminished when the subsequent settings ensued, occupying distinctly similar soundworlds despite their entirely different poetic content. The exquisite poignancy of Whitman’s “Out of the rolling ocean, the crowd” was made sluggish and portentous (although brilliantly executed by the choir, including subtle overtone singing), while the impassioned love of E. E. Cummings’ “i carry your heart with me” was utterly lacking, giving the impression that Tulve has but a single approach to word-setting. All the same, when the tone of the words matched that approach, as in the Wagoner setting, it could hardly have been more perfect.

Kaspars Putniņš © Peeter Langovits
Kaspars Putniņš
© Peeter Langovits

Märt-Matis Lill’s 2014 work Niehkkoája / The Dream Stream seeks to tap into the aural mindset of the joik, the traditional song-form of the Sami people. The joik is somewhat complex in character, encompassing elements of story-telling and expressions of belief and states of mind, often personal and without obvious structural markers. To an extent, this foreknowledge made for a more relaxed listening experience, focussing more on the music’s moment-by-moment sense of inner motion than looking for an over-arching sense of direction. Despite this, founded upon a shifting vocal cloudscape with an occasional foregrounded baritone solo (intoning a wordless folk-like melody), with electronics reinforcing the atmosphere, it was difficult to know what exactly to latch onto. Nevertheless, there were some magical moments that worked as payoffs for the work’s otherwise deliberately vague sense of focus. Perhaps it succeeded too well in its aims, attaining a profound state of compositional subjectivity – but where does that leave the audience? Does a work like this, in fact, even need one?

The concert was rounded off with a quartet of Clytus Gottwald’s choral arrangements of music by Gustav Mahler. To describe them as having mixed results doesn’t quite convey how controversial some of them were. The second, for example, reworking the “Urlicht” movement from Mahler’s Second Symphony, in many respects destroyed the magic of the Wunderhorn song, with the brisk central episode rendered so clumsy and ungainly that there was nothing conductor Kaspars Putniņš or the choir could do to redeem it. “Es sungen drei Engel” (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) was worse, somehow becoming a muddy, turgid exercise in sub-Brahmsian humdrummery, but “Um Mitternacht” from the Rückert-Lieder fared rather better, admittedly with a reduced impact than the original but at times genuinely lovely. The last of the four was, if anything, the most polarising of them all, using the Fifth Symphony Adagietto to set “Im Abendrot” (used to close Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs). On the one hand, anyone hoping for a faithful rendition of Mahler’s music would no doubt be left fuming – the intoxicating intimacy of the original here made rather breathless as its argument deepens – yet Mahler prevailed, the choir filling the verdant space with his tendril-like lines and stunningly gorgeous harmonies.

A decidedly mixed programme, then, and while Putniņš’ direction was little more than functional, the choir hardly put a foot wrong all evening, with a superb sense of balance and vocal cohesion.

***11