Organ features in album of Latvian chamber music compositions

The Riga Cathedral, and particularly the grand organ within, have long been an inspiration for musicians in Latvia and internationally. When the organ was completed in 1884, even famed Hungarian composer Franz Liszt composed the work ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ to mark the occasion. Even now, almost 250 years later, the large, stately organ continues to inspire composers.

Recognizing the inspiration that many have drawn from the organ, the Latvian national record label Skani, as part of their recording series ‘Latvian Composers’, released Cantus Annae in 2017. This recording was initiated by organist Aigars Reinis (who performs the organ in all the works) and soprano Ieva Ezeriete, who sings in two of the compositions. The album collects six chamber music compositions by five contemporary composers where the organ is the central instrument in the work. Though some may consider the organ an ‘old fashioned’ instrument, this collection of works shows how the organ remains highly relevant in music, and how, in varied and unusual combinations, the organ can be an essential aspect of modern music.

The collection opens with the Toccata for organ by Rihards Dubra (one of two works by the composer on the album). This grandiose work, beautifully expressing the majesty of the Riga Cathedral organ, combines elements of both modern and classical organ music. Deftly moving between quieter and more introspective moments and the louder, more monumental passages, Reinis proves again to be one of Latvia’s most talented and adept organists.

Reinis is then joined by violinist Gidons Grīnbergs on Vilnis Šmīdbergs’ ‘Litany – Festivum purgativum’, and, as the title would indicate, this is a more somber and spiritual work. The sound of Grīnbergs’ violin can be interpreted as a prayer, soaring ever higher and higher. After a slightly tenser middle section, where the staccato organ sounds almost like a pulse or a heartbeat, peace returns at the end, first with a chorale-like section, and then as both instruments slowly fade as the prayer concludes.

Percussionist Elīna Endzele adds to the mix on Ilona Breģe’s ‘Bell Music’ with her sonorous and resounding performance of not just bells, but a number of metal percussive instruments. Inspired by the sound of bells at Orthodox churches, Breģe’s composition is meant to evoke the sound of passing by churches with their bells tolling. As the work builds to a crescendo, all the varied, simultaneous bells (as well as the undulating organ) gives the work a dreamy feel, as if listening to the bells ringing simultaneously at multiple churches. The work ends on a somber note, with a single tolling bell.

Ieva Ezeriete lends vocals to Santa Ratniece’s ‘El mirollo de l’arbore’ for soprano and organ, a work inspired by writings of the 14th century mystic St. Catherine of Siena. The flowing, meditative work is given the right amount of spiritual depth and emotional clarity via Ezeriete’s singing. And, as Ratniece explains, the composition has elements of love, humility and caution, and the composer weaves together both modern and ancient elements to create an absorbing and compelling composition.

Rihards Zaļupe, composer and inimitable percussionist, provides the work ‘Foxfire Under Bare Enoki Tree’ for violin, percussion and organ. The energetic work, with each instrument providing bursts of music and sound, is inspired by Japanese folklore, particularly a legend of flaming clothes worn by foxes that gather on New Year’s Eve. After an almost hyperactive beginning, the work then calms, with soft sounds from the high registers of all the instruments. Combining mystical and spiritual elements, this evocative, dynamic work is brought to vivid life by Reinis, Endzele, and Grīnbergs.

The collection concludes as it began, with a composition by Rihards Dubra – the expansive ‘Cantus Annae’, for soprano, percussion, organ and positive organ (a smaller, more mobile type of organ). Inspired by the Song of Hannah from the Old Testament, the composition depicts the story of Hannah, an infertile woman, and her conversation with God, begging for a child. Ezeriete’s soaring soprano, combined with the rhythmic and melodic performance of Endzele’s marimba, along with Reinis’ resplendent organ work, creates an exceptional interpretation of this Bible story.

The CD booklet includes information about the composers, compositions and performers in both Latvian and English. However, one does wish that they had included the vocal texts in the booklet as well, as this would aid the appreciation of the works with vocals.

The timeless Riga Cathedral organ, a cornerstone of Latvian music and composition for more than two centuries, has inspired and continues to inspire many generations of composers. As proven by the collection of compositions on Cantus Annae, this centuries old instrument has as much of a place in modern music as it did when it was built. This collection of chamber music, with its variety and broad spectrum of styles and sounds, is not just a testament to the creative strength of Latvian composers, but also the incomparable organ of the Riga Cathedral.

For further information, please visit the Skani website.

Cantus Annae

Skani

SKANI055, 2017

Track listing:

1. Rihards Dubra – Toccata for organ
2. Vilnis Šmīdbergs – Litany – Festivum purgativum for violin and organ
3. Ilona Breģe – Bell Music for percussion and organ
4. Santa Ratniece – El mirollo de l’arbore for soprano and organ
5. Rihards Zaļupe – Foxfire Under Bare Enoki Tree for violin, percussion and organ
6. Rihards Dubra – Cantus Annae for soprano, percussion, organ and positive organ

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

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