Intense beauty and profound tranquillity from Estonian choir

The choir's indescribably gorgeous sound and astonishing breadth of tone brought a rare moment of profound tranquillity to Singapore on a weekday evening.
The choir's indescribably gorgeous sound and astonishing breadth of tone brought a rare moment of profound tranquillity to Singapore on a weekday evening.PHOTO: JAAN KRIVEL

REVIEW / CONCERT

ESTONIAN NATIONAL MALE CHOIR

Theodor Sink (cello), Mikk Uleoja (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Tuesday

This is turning into a bumper year for male choirs visiting Singapore.

A month ago, it was the King's Singers. On Saturday, the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge will perform at the Esplanade. And Tuesday saw a visit from the Estonian National Male Choir.

Each of these choirs has its own distinct way of singing and the Estonians can best be described as producing a profound atmosphere of calm behind which, one senses, lies enormous reserves of strength.

In a programme which was dominated by contemporary works, this unique sound was best demonstrated in two works by Italian composer Giovanni Bonato.

For both works, Mikk Uleoja ranged the 46 voices of his choir as a vast semi-circle embracing the entire stage.

The resulting sound was extraordinary in its spatial feel and in the absolute clarity of detail, even with dynamic levels rarely rising above the extremely soft.

Crux Fidelis was for choir alone, but Signum Magnum was more in the guise of a cello solo with vocal backing.

Seated in isolation in the middle of the choir's semi-circle, Theodor Sink eloquently expounded the solo part, drawing from his cello the kind of vocal inflexions and nuances absent from the choir's discrete accompaniment.

At various places in the semi-circle, individual singers held wine glasses from which, by means of running a wet finger around the rim, came an ethereal ringing resonance. The effect was utterly hypnotic.

The combination of a solo cello and large male choir is not one you come across every day, but aside from the Bonato work, it was also featured in a short piece by Russian composer Galina Grigorjeva and in the concert opener, Mendelssohn's rarely heard Responsorium Et Hymnus.

With the choir closer to Sink and his cello, it seemed almost as if he was providing a Bach-style continuo to a choral tone which itself sounded more instrumental than vocal.

Ironically, the only genuine Estonian music in the programme was originally written for the King's Singers and while composer Veljo Tormis had revised The Bishop And The Pagan for this larger ensemble, this performance lacked dramatic impact.

Unquestionably, the most intensely beautiful singing of the evening came on three movements from Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil.

The choir's indescribably gorgeous sound and astonishing breadth of tone brought a rare moment of profound tranquillity to Singapore on a weekday evening.

Uleoja is clearly a conductor with a powerful personality. He commands total attention, not just from his singers, but also from the audience, who were obliged, by his sternly determined gestures, to receive everything in complete silence.

Only when Uleoja decided the time was right did he allow the floodgates of applause to open.

That not a single soul in the auditorium broke ranks was an extraordinary achievement matched only by his absolute mastery over this superb choir.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2018, with the headline 'Intense beauty and profound tranquillity from Estonian choir'. Print Edition | Subscribe