Embarrassing puns aside, the music of Arvo Pärt is hardly the staple fare of late-night revellers on Bristol’s Park Street, especially on a Friday. Tucked just around the corner, though, St George’s was celebrating the end of the long summer drought of live classical music courtesy of the Choir of Royal Holloway – fresh from their tour of the Balkan states – and the Bristol Ensemble. Although hardly classifying as “late night” (with its 8.30–9.30pm running time), this format of concert and its refreshingly original programme, featuring works by Pärt and his Estonian compatriot Tōnu Kōrvits, promised to be an intriguing curtain-raiser for Bristol’s 2013/2014 classical music scene.

Bristol Ensemble
Bristol Ensemble

It was perhaps the pressure of such a responsibility, the nerves naturally caused by the honour of opening the season’s music-making in such a prestigious venue, that made the opening movement of Pärt’s Berliner Messe feel so tentative. Both choir and string orchestra seemed only to dip their toes into the Kyrie, lacking conviction in Pärt’s austere antiphony and struggling to synchronise entries. The Gloria immediately felt far more secure, the choir gaining confidence in the four-part richer texture and exhibiting excellent diction. The strings were less convincing, their intonation proving as problematic as in the previous movement. The Bristol Ensemble is the South West’s leading chamber orchestra, and a remarkably versatile bunch of musicians; however, tonight’s representative string octet seemed somewhat under-rehearsed throughout this opening work, the violins especially struggling with their intonation.

The Berliner Messe was originally written for the Christian feast of Pentecost, at which the imparting of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples is celebrated. The Latin sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus, used in the Roman Catholic Church since the 13th century, is strongly associated with the feast, and Pärt includes his setting of it in the Messe. The composer’s affinity with the music of the medieval church is witnessed not only in this inclusion but also in its setting: the words are intoned, chant-like, using notes from a single triad over a pedal. This compositional technique, invented by Pärt and termed “tintinnabuli”, creates an extraordinarily powerful sense of musical stasis in its consonance; “soft” dissonances, which in the majority of music go entirely unnoticed, become invested with immense expressive potential. The ensuing Credo returned to more familiar major sonorities, the vocal lines encompassing a wider range and more rhythmic movement. After a slightly tedious Sanctus, which seemed somewhat sedate and lacking the latent energy underlying the stasis of the Veni Sancte Spiritus, the beautiful, mirror-like Agnus Dei concluded the work.

Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten is one of Pärt’s most popular works and one in which he exhibits his mastery of using minimal material to create music of maximal musical and emotional power. Essentially, the piece is a descending scale which overlaps incessantly between parts and weaves its way over pedal chords from the highest violin harmonics to the lowest of detuned double bass grumblings, all underpinned by a knolling tubular bell. The beginning of the work is the most exposed, beginning in stratospheric violins before sinking into more comfortable registers; like in the Messe, this opening was shaky, but this time it was the instrumentalists who found their feet and the subsequent richness of sound which developed made this a moving performance.

After the austere, antiquated yet profoundly emotional music of Arvo Pärt, it was something of a shock to hear his fellow countryman’s music. Tōnu Kōrvits’ Kreegi vihik (“Kreek’s Notebook”) takes words from Cyrillus Kreek’s collection of folk hymns (or popular spiritual songs) from Estonia and sets them to Kōrvits’ folk- and minimalist-influenced musical style. The result was a shift from the sacred, liturgical intensity of the ancient church that so influenced Pärt to the evangelical praise music of Kōrvits, and it left me reeling. Whilst the choir and orchestra combined more successfully than previously, I found little to recommend the music itself: the sonorities seemed tacky and oversaturated; the “folk” aspect stereotypical and condescending (all scotch snaps and twiddle-dee-dee triplet figures). There were movements in which the music became more interesting: the powerful unison singing over scurrying strings in “Oh vōta”; the complex choral interplay in “Lenda üles kurbtuset”; and the excellent soprano and bass solos in each of these movements.

Perhaps Kreegi vihik suffered from the atmosphere created by 40 minutes of Pärt; perhaps it would have connected with me more in a different context. As it was I was sorry that the music did not do justice to its performers, who sang and played as well as they had all concert. It was only right that Pärt, and the singers, got the last word, with an excellent, short, explosive encore which got the St George’s season started as well as any party popper.

**111