The first half of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir's concert under Kaspars Putnins at the National Concert Hall last Wednesday was devoted to music by Estonia's most celebrated composer Arvo Pärt. The selection began with Solfeggio, a work composed in 1963 when Pärt was an avant-gardist in the world of Soviet music. His current style was more than a decade away, and his country's independence further away again. Pärt himself has described the work as "simply a scale...that takes the form of a four-part cluster, in that every note is sustained into the following note".
It's also a serial work that uses the notes of the scale as its repeating series. And, most immediately for today's listeners, it's an exercise in choral texturing in which the inherent dissonances of the material are cushioned by the sheer beauty of the slow-moving choral lines. Wednesday's performance made the choral pedigree of the Estonian choir immediately obvious. The singing of this work, which can be seen as a surprising precursor of the later Pärt, was controlled, lucid, reserved, even slightly detached. The works by Pärt were presented in mostly chronological order. Solfeggio was followed by Summa from 1977 and the Magnificat from 1989, then three works from the 1990s and the Nunc dimittis of 2001. The last of Pärt's works to be sung, however, was Dopo la vittoria, a piece commissioned to mark the 1,600th anniversary of the death of Saint Ambrosius in 1996. The frequent springing rhythmic lightness of the music set its mood quite apart from the rest of this Pärt selection. The harmonic world changed after the interval, with Irish composer Conor O'Reilly's Pie Jesu and Angus Dei heralding styles of greater warmth and more overt emotionalism. The choir worked through pieces by Cyrillus Kreek and Galina Grigorjeva, before reaching a theatrical if still somewhat understated peak in the dramatic ritual of Veljo Tormis's Raua needmine (Curse upon iron).
Friday saw the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra make an important exploration into areas of 18th-century repertoire that it has spent very little time in – Mozart's concert arias and suites of dances from the operas of Rameau. And it brought in a period music specialist, Harry Bicket, for the occasion. The RTÉ NSO has in recent years begun to pay attention to the world of period performances through its performances of Bach passions at Easter. This year brings the St John Passion with Nicolas Mulroy as the Evangelist, with Nicholas Kraemer conducting on Good Friday, March 30th. But Friday's Mozart/Rameau pairing marked a brave move into the heart of the subscription season without the special crutch that comes with the name of Bach. Bicket proved to be an invigorating guide to colourful, often foot-tapping suites from Rameau's Platée and Les Boréades. His delight was palpable in the contrasts of intimacy and display in Mozart's Serenata notturna, and he was a sensitive partner for soprano Anna Devin in three of the composer's concert arias. Devin is one of those singers whose sheer fluency and ease of command can quite mask the extremity of some of the demands she masters in performance. Everything she sang on Friday was first class, and her negotiation of the precipitous heights in Ah se in ciel, benigne stelle, K538, will long remain specially etched in the memory.
Sunday brought two international piano competition winners to the Emily Anderson Concert Hall at NUI Galway. The promoter, Music for Galway, has had pianist Finghin Collins, himself an international piano competition winner, as artistic director since 2013. But the Galway piano connection actually goes back to the foundation of Music for Galway by Jane O'Leary in 1981. Installing a new, small Steinway grand in what was then the Aula Maxima was one of organisation's first moves. Nathalia Milstein, winner of the 2015 Dublin International Piano Competition, and Juan Pérez Floristán, winner that same year of the Paloma O'Shea Santander International Piano Competition, both concentrated on the big, audience-friendly works that audiences like and that juries are likely to be impressed by. Yet Milstein also offered something different, in the first performance of Sam Perkin's specially commissioned Dandling, which, as its title suggests, is named after the songs people sing while playing with their children on their knee. In Milstein's performance the piece came across as a sequence of half-remembered fragments, heard mostly in the piano's bright treble, where each shimmers briefly before giving way to the next, and the whole seemed like an intriguingly spaced-out series of giddy dances. Milstein's big works were Debussy's Estampes, all sensitively coloured, and Schumann's Fantasy in C, Op. 17, a work so wholeheartedly and ardently romantic that it's always startling to remember that it was conceived in 1836 when Beethoven was less than 10 years in his grave. The grand and expansive gestures of the Schumann, its explosiveness and its grave songfulness, all seemed closer to Milstein than the more immediately refined sensibility of the Debussy. It came as no surprise when she chose more Schumann as her encore. From the start of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, it was clear that Floristán was eager to make a big impression. The Appassionata certainly allows and even encourages that, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which followed, does so even more. If his goal was to impress, Floristán certainly delivered. And he also showed that he has the sensitivity to impress without, as it were, raising his voice. The opening of the Appassionata's slow movement was sensitively done, and Pictures had its moments of quieter relief too. Yet his standard mode was one of attention-grabbing and, particularly given the instrument he was playing – two sizes down from a full concert grand – quickly came to sound fatiguing.