Chamber Choir Ireland at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin on 8 November 2015

Since Arvo Pärt’s haunting vocal and instrumental music caught popular attention 30 years ago, interest in his work continues to grow. Paul Hillier, tonight’s conductor and musical director of Chamber Choir Ireland, has been an important figure in the dissemination of Arvo Pärt’s choral music since the mid-1980s. At that time Hillier initiated the collaboration between the composer and the Hilliard Ensemble, a major breakthrough for Pärt. Hillier has since written a book about the composer, and continued exploring Pärt’s music for voices through his work with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen and, now, Chamber Choir Ireland.

Pärt’s 80th birthday provides a good point at which to look back on the composer’s career to date. His output has been extensive, and tonight’s programme makes a careful selection, with the choir performing music written between 1996 and 2008, with the exception of the more recent ‘Virgencita’ and the much earlier ‘Solfeggio’. The choir sings with confident assurance, creating a cohesive, well-balanced sound. When other ensembles approach this or similar material, the voices can sometimes give the impression of being held back and over-controlled, but there is no evidence of that in the singing tonight.

The dynamic range we hear extends from a calm focus to a brilliant, visceral fullness in the louder passages, so necessary for projecting the sense of rapturous ecstasy that this music invokes. Technical challenges, such as the wide leaps in pitch in ‘I am the True Vine’, or the high-lying lines in the latter part of Kanon Pokajanen, are managed effectively. The sustained notes of ‘Solfeggio’ convey an abstract intensity, like so many shards of light, creating an intriguing relationship to the rest of the programme, with the varied approaches to setting sacred texts.

The richest part of the evening is heard in the extended excerpts from Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen. Here, as ever, the voices form a rich body of sound, and individual sections show a depth of quality in each voice part. The occasional – well-tuned – dissonances create exciting moments of energy and tension. The choir maintains a lively and vibrant intensity throughout, producing a vivid account of this deeply beautiful music.

Programme:

Arvo Pärt: ‘Morning Star’ (2007); Virgencita’ (2012); ‘Solfeggio’ (1963); ‘I am the True Vine’ (1996); ‘The Deer’s Cry’ (2007); ‘Alleluia Tropus’ (2008); excerpts from Kanon Pokajanen (1997) – ‘Ode I’, ‘Kontakion’, ‘Ikos’, ‘Ode IX’, ‘Prayer after the Kanon’

Chamber Choir Ireland performs this programme at Triskel Christ Church, Cork, on December 3

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