Tales from Estonia: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at Flagey, Brussels

This ‘Tales from Estonia’ evening in Brussels marked the close of Flagey’s Arvo Pärt weekend, jointly a celebration of Pärt’s music and of the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence. It was my second time hearing the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir showcasing works by Estonian composers live; last year, I conducted an audience survey at their Estonian Music Days performance in Tallinn.

We opened with Ülo Krigul’s Water Is (2015), a rustling reflection on the meeting of land and water with a text drawn from the sound poetry of Ilmar Laaban. The choir’s sustained lines were freely improvised around gong notes that emerged from an atmospheric phonograph accompaniment.  From this deeply meditative beginning, the choir moved on to a selection of four Arvo Pärt works: his 1989 Magnificat setting (in tintinnabuli style), Zwei Beter (1998), his Nunc dimittis from 2001 and Dopo la vittoria (1996/8). I’m not a huge Pärt fan but I savoured the choir’s skill in making this hushed music rise, soar and slip back to silence. Dopo la vittoria featured a number of bright solo passages that were performed with precision and clarity.

Estonia’s younger generation of composers was represented by Liisa Hirsch, who gave the Belgian premiere of her work Lines for choir and electronics. The piece’s tight, microtonal surface was intriguing but I found the relationship of the electronics to the voices unclear, which became a little distracting. The final part of the programme offered some (much-needed) contrast in Veljo Tormis’ compositions. Tormis’ wide-ranging style draws heavily on Estonian-Finnish folklore and musical traditions, representing a very different strand of Estonian choral music to Pärt’s output. The choir performed his St John’s Day Songs (1967) and Curse Upon Iron (1972). This latter piece glowed with a raw energy, propelled forward by shamanic drum. Have a listen to more from these composers below and check out the audience research version of this post!

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