With its superbly trained amateur chorus, the Edinburgh International Festival has never wanted for choral concerts, but the singing has always been part of a bigger symphonic event. Here, for the first time, a professional choir was the sole act – and proved quite capable of selling out the festival’s main concert venue.
If you take a look at the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s list of credits, you will understand why. Its international reputation has been fertilised by collaborations with many leading conductors and orchestras – and by an impressively small number of directors, of whom Paul Hillier is best known in the UK. In 2008 he was succeeded by Daniel Reuss, who conducted this collection of sacred works by Estonia’s own Arvo Pärt (born 1935) and Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), as well as Schnittke. The main work was Rachmaninov’s Vespers.
It takes a special discipline to stand beneath the glaring lights of a concert hall and sing for 100 minutes, unaccompanied, without the slightest flaw of intonation or ensemble. To that accomplishment the Choir added exceptional clarity and concentration, as well as a roundness of sound that belied its modest size – just 27 members.
Such qualities were a definite plus in the Rachmaninov, the only “known” work in the programme and one more often associated with echoey resonance and impassioned Russian piety. Like the others works here it is more an act of devotion than an intellectual/emotional stimulus, and that’s maybe why it made an underwhelming, if not monotonous, impact.
The delight shown by the audience in the psalms and hymns of the concert’s first half underlined how much east European sacred music has come into vogue. But the point about this calming, contemplative blend of harmony and melody is its very lack of experiment or radicalism – the opposite of what Schnittke, for example, wrote in his secular works. Pärt’s Two Slavonic Psalms were not written for the concert hall, and it seemed a sin to applaud. The same applies to Kreek’s Psalms of David, though the folk melodies here were a helpful reminder that choral singing in Estonia has as many popular connotations as it does spiritual.