Perth Festival review: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Australian Chamber Orchestra ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, February 13 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅
There is nothing more stimulating – nor more hoped for – in a festival than an unusual and imaginative confluence of artistic forces. This dream was doubly fulfilled on this occasion when the Perth Festival brought together a choir and orchestra who last performed on the same stage in 1999 and two composers – J.S. Bach and the Estonian Arvo Pärt – separated by 250 years.
The early composing career of Pärt came to a halt under Soviet censorship; but his research into the roots of Western music and into early choral writing brought with it fresh inspiration and a compositional style that takes off in the pre-Bach era and makes its landing in a receptive contemporary world. It is probably fair to say that few composers of the post-war era have so successfully absorbed archaic sounds and fashioned them so as to be distinctly and uniquely of our times.
All of this was reflected clearly in the opening work, Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine, a Jordi Savall commission for a 2004 Barcelona peace concert, and composed in memory of the victims of the Madrid train bombing of that year. With the choir standing in a single row in front of the orchestra and barely visible in the darkened auditorium, the short, slow plea for peace had the audience collectively holding its breath. Sparing in harmony and restrained in melodic content, voices perfectly pitched and weighted, a more arresting opening would be hard to imagine.
And then, completely without pause and with the lights raised, Bach’s motet Komm, Jesu, Komm was launched while the choir sang its way to its double chorus formation behind the orchestra. With the singers summoning freshest tone and the purity of the upper voices lending an appropriately ecstatic quality, the theme of the work – the release from earthly life into life-eternal – was perfectly evoked.
Each composer having thus made his opening statement, a pattern of short alternating works followed, Pärt’s orchestral utterances contrasting with Bach’s accompanied Lutheran motets. All were performed with high accomplishment and each was replete with memorable moments in composition and execution.
The third item, Pärt’s orchestral Summa, with its jagged lines gently intoned, suggested a quiet determination that life shall go on, following the tragedy that inspired Da pacem Domine. By contrast, Bach’s Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied then led into an unleashing of joy and energy, with solo voices emerging as though from a heavenly host!
A brief but attractive In Paradisum by Galina Grigorjeva strongly reflects her Orthodox inspiration. In this performance it built towards a richly harmonic Slavonic climax before a finely controlled quiet close. Moving abruptly – and without chorus – into an altogether different sound world, Peter Sculthorpe’s Djilile (“Whistling Duck”) uses an Aboriginal melody from Arnhem Land that resonated strongly with the composer. The emergence of the song from the vast landscape evoked by the cello introduction, seemed to convey love and loss of country and a spirituality no less profound than anything that had preceded it on the programme.
Pärt’s Berliner Messe was composed for the 1990 Berlin Katholikentage, a periodic gathering held in the German-speaking countries. The evening’s most substantial offering, it is a work of solemn devotion in Pärt’s tintinnabuli style and is devoid of any hint of flamboyance. Its performance reflected the qualities heard throughout the evening and, with a concluding plea for peace, brought us full circle to the theme of the opening work.
Richard Tognetti, combining masterful direction with a self-effacing presence, together with a group of truly fine orchestral and vocal artists, gave the 2019 Perth Festival an absorbing and stimulating early highlight.
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir can also be heard in performance at Winthrop Hall on Friday 15th February at 8pm and Saturday 16th at 3pm, with pre-concert conversations one hour before each show.
Pictured top: The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Photo Kristian Kruuser.