I turned in my tickets for the Cleveland Orchestra concert on Friday night (Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony) in order to hear the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tonu Kaljuste, at the Cathedral of St. John in downtown Cleveland. I made the right choice.
I have several recordings of the Estonian choir, notably music by fellow Estonian Veljo Tormis, but also a landmark recording of the Rachmaninov “All Night Vespers,” so I knew that they were good, but their performance was nothing short of phenomenal, with laser-like precision in sound and intonation. The Estonians make John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers and other famous choruses sound as if they are singing quarter-tone music. What was downright eerie was that the Estonians did not seem to be working very hard to do what they were doing. The discipline required cannot be underestimated.
The Estonian group has recorded much of the choral music by Arvo Pärt (probably the Estonian composer best known in the West), and the first half of this program was devoted to Pärt’s music. Only one of the works, “Da pacem Domine,” has been recorded. The find of this program was Pärt’s 2004-2005 work “L’Abbe Agathon,” a musical parable about an abbot who encounters a leper and demonstrates Christian charity. Sung in French, it was very moving. A soprano soloist sang the role of the leper, and a baritone soloist was the abbot. The choir were corporate narrators (in much the same way that the chorus is the narrator in Pärt’s “St. John Passion.”)
The second half opened with an instrumental work by Erkki-Sven Tüür, “Action, Passion, Illusion,” which was also striking, especially the central “Passion” movement, which moved from low string polyphony upward through the string orchestra, ending in an unsettling high string cluster.
The remainder of the program was devoted to Antonio Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 112, “Beatus vir” for strings, continuo, soloists and choir. The virtuoso soloists were all drawn from the choir.
As I’ve written before here, I think that there are in general too many standing ovations in Cleveland, but this is one concert that I can honestly and vigorously say deserved the ovation the performers received. The audience was rewarded with an encore, a meltingly beautiful arrangement of an Estonian Christmas carol, mostly for women’s voices with strings, but in the end with the men humming along on the tune.
This concert has to be considered one of the top concerts of this season. Cathedral music director Greg Heislman is to be congratulated and thanked for bringing the Estonians. (The concert was also co-sponsored by the Cleveland Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.)