mon 24/06/2024

Estonian National Male Voice Choir, Üleoja, Kings Place review - full-throated Baltic choral music | reviews, news & interviews

Estonian National Male Voice Choir, Üleoja, Kings Place review - full-throated Baltic choral music

Estonian National Male Voice Choir, Üleoja, Kings Place review - full-throated Baltic choral music

Adventurous programme thrills, threatens and enthrals

The Estonian National Male Voice Choir at Kings Place on Sunday© Simon Broughton

One of the singers smashes out a jittery pulse on a shaman drum and the 50-strong choir intone a chant, while at the front a tenor who looks like a doorman you wouldn’t mess with spits out what sounds like a threat from between gritted teeth. It is the Estonian National Male Voice Choir performing Veljo Tormis’s Raua needmine (“Curse Upon Iron”) and it is utterly entrancing, invigorating – and just a little bit scary.

The Estonian Tormis (1930-2017) wrote almost exclusively for voice, usually engaging in some way with Estonian folk traditions. But if this suggests bucolic melodiousness, nothing could be further from the case. It is uncompromising music, menacing and driven, uninterested in tunes and harmonic progressions, creating a soundworld that shares the ritualistic detachment of Estonian near-contemporary Arvo Pärt, but without his comforting religious certainties.

It was heard in a different light in the opening item, also by Tormis, Hääled Tammsaare karjapõlvest (“Voices from Tammsaare’s Herdboy Days”). This depicts 19th century Estonian life in music based around the folk tune “Song of a great oak”, played in on tape in the form of quavering voice of an 85-year-old singer, picked up by the choir and passed around and inspected like an heirloom. There is a wonderful moment when the choir splits into two, then three different simultaneous tempos – each section sticking doggedly to its guns, making a glorious collage.The Estonian National Male Voice ChoirThe choir, under Mikk Üloeja, their leader since 2011, were full-bloodedly committed to this music, whether in loud declamation, or intense passages of tight unison, or moments of intense hush. As an introduction to the music of Tormis it couldn’t have been bettered, and his music stood above most of the other repertoire. Justė Janulytė’s Now I’m Nowhere started promisingly, with slowly evolving cluster chords surging and falling back, presented in “surround sound” by the singers lined up along the sides of the auditorium. It was hypnotic and beautiful – but too long for itself and, for me at least, outstayed its welcome. Latvian composer Santa Ratniece’s haiku settings sadness…stillness had a similar problem: haikus are about a conveying a weight out of proportion to their size, but despite the music’s carefully textured harmony this felt like a “more-is-less” situation.The Estonian National Male Voice ChoirGavin Bryars’s Edwin Morgan Sonnets, given their UK premiere as a nod to the composer’s 80th birthday, were a change in style from the predominantly drone-based harmony elsewhere. They were melodic and varied, with unexpected echoes of US college glee club in the second. My favourite was the third, “The Mirror”, in which rich symmetrical (mirrored) chords opened out into an almost Elgarian breadth.

The final number, Giovanni Bonato’s Deep Peace again saw the choir spread around the hall, this time armed with Boomwhackers and triangles, which somehow felt a bit gimmicky in a way Tormis’s frame drum and array of bells hadn’t. But no matter, I went away enthused by having heard two Estonian classics, sung in the most Estonian way by the most Estonian of choirs.



Certainly the Tormis pieces were the standouts in this concert. But clearly Curse Upon Iron was a powerful statement about the war in Ukraine. All the choir were wearing little tags with the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag. The final piece was actually a prayer for Ukraine which underlined the message. The former Soviet Baltic states understandably feel this war quite strongly.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performed 'A Curse upon Iron' back in 2018 (, and it had a huge impact then. How much more so now.

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