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Estonian choir’s program exceptionally serious, intense

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, March 11, 2006

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

Vancouver choral fans had a rare opportunity to hear one of northern Europe’s most celebrated ensembles, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, in demanding music by Benjamin Britten, Francis Poulenc and their compatriot Arvo Pärt, at the Chan Saturday.

It proved a program of exceptional seriousness and intensity, as each of the featured composers demonstrated a profoundly different approach to choral writing.

The evening began with Britten’s classic Hymn to St Cecilia (1942), to a virtuoso text by W.H. Auden. Here the Estonian singers matched Britten’s extravagant (and possibly glib) music with a wide range of considered timbres and an underlying richness of sound. Paul Hillier, who’s been with the choir since 2001, showed himself an efficient conductor with no wasted movements and a no-nonsense aura.

Three recent pieces by Pärt followed. The Littlemore Tractus, with an English text by eminent Victorian John Henry Newman, is slight and sentimental, but both his Salve Regina and Nunc dimittis are impressive.

The Salve Regina is perhaps the more rewarding of the two, with a sectional form that magically concludes in edgy phrases from choir and organ alternating with silence. The Nunc dimittis (“Lord, now let thy servant depart in

peace”) is assembled from sober, simple gestures, building to a single moment of theatrical intensity before subsiding into music spun out over an obsessive very low note in the bass voices.

Two earlier Pärt works followed the interval: Trivium (1976), for solo organ, was marvelously brought to life by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent; the a capella Magnificat (1989) gave a substantial sample of the inimitable Pärt sound that began to captivate listeners in the ’90s.

And there was more Britten. His Hymn to the Virgin, written when he was 17, is an amazing achievement.

Using an anonymous late-medieval text in English and Latin, the young composer juxtaposes two ensembles; Hillier opted for spatial separation between the choir and a quartet sent out into the hall.

Yet the highlight of the program proved to be Poulenc’s 1937 Mass. For the French master’s music, Hillier demanded a bright and vivid sound which gave remarkable brilliance to music that is chic, sophisticated, and still unapologetically fervid. The choir’s splendid rendition made the music spark with energy, and convincingly demonstrated the greatness of Poulenc’s highly individual choral writing.

Mon Mar 13, 2006