As part of the London A Cappella Festival, on 22 January the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performed “An Eastern Vigil”, at LSO St Luke’s, conducted by Daniel Reuss, accompanied by Gilad Atzmon, which included works by Pärt, Rachmaninov and others.
There are no better words than “solemn” and “mysterious” with which to describe An Eastern Vigil, the opening performance in the London A Cappella Festival, a four-day event of unaccompanied vocal and choral singing.
The evening was book-ended with more well-known works – Arvo Pärt’s Slavonic Psalms, Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, Sergei Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil (often mistakenly called simply “Vespers”) – which the EPCC handled beautifully, with improvisational and insightful interludes from the supremely talented (and always reliable) saxophonist and clarinettist Gilad Atzmon. To hear famous pieces performed with such freshness was a treat, especially from an ensemble so used to performing them.
But the real mystery of the evening was as to the other composers and their works, namely the Estonian Cyrillus Kreek (almost unknown outside of Estonia), the Ukranian Vasyl Barvinsky and the Russian Nikolai Kedrov. My own knowledge was sketchy – I knew of Kedrov’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer (Otsche Nash; well worth seeking out) – but of the others, precious little.
Sadly no enlightenment was to be found in the exiguous (or “stingy”, as an Estonian sitting near-by suggested) accompanying programme, which didn’t include the sung texts in translation, a fact also not lost on those sitting close to me. Notes would have been helpful, with works performed in Estonian, Russian and Old Church Slavonic. Having said that, in this age of instant gratification, it was reassuring to see 400 people sitting in dim lighting, enraptured by this most non-visual form of art.
Two highlights were Kreek’s setting of Psalm 22 with its jolting change of register; and Barvinsky’s Oh, what a Wonder!, with a charming soprano accompanied by a humming choir, over which Atzmon wove improvised melodies gracefully and without distraction.
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is at the top of its game and sings effortlessly with poise and grace, performing music it loves to an audience who loved it all, as the encore proved.
Cover photo: The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Kaupo Kikkas)