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.

Best known songs performed by Žoržs Siksna released on new CD

Latvian pop singer Žoržs Siksna has, for decades now, been one of the most recognizable vocalists in Latvian popular music. Many of the songs he has sung have been hits and remain well known and are beloved songs even decades later. Though most of his more popular tunes were recorded in the early 1980s, he has remained active, performing and recording, and also enjoyed a resurgence of interest in his music after his appearances on the Latvian talent show Koru kari. To acknowledge his contribution to Latvian popular music, in 2017, record label MicRec released Leģendas, a collection of his best known numbers.

This collection is particularly welcome, since Siksna has had comparatively fewer releases on CD than other singers of that era. One best-of collection, Vasaras vīns, was released in 1995, but also included some newer songs and missed quite a few of his more well-known songs. The Leģendas release (the latest in a series that celebrates Latvian popular singers) is a long awaited, extensive collection that serves as a convincing reminder of Siksna’s singing ability and talents. The album also includes quite a few songs that were previously unreleased on CD.

Among Siksna’s most popular songs is ‘Muļķe sirds’ (composed by Raimonds Pauls), an anxious lament for a foolish heart – though it should be noted that the version on this CD is not the same version as was on the Mikrofons 81 record, which is a slightly slower, more relaxed version of the song. The song was also featured in one of the most popular films in Latvian history – Limuzīns Jāņu nakts krāsā, released in 1981 and directed by Jānis Streičs. The film also includes the dreamy ‘Vālodzīte’, a song Siksna also later included in his repertoire, and Siksna’s version of this song also features the singer playing the clarinet.

Siksna, with his soaring voice and stage presence, has occasionally been described as a ‘Latvian Tom Jones’, and one can occasionally sense that in the mildly flirtatious ‘Genoveva’ and the slightly more amorous song ‘Jel, dod man bučiņ’’. In contrast to the slower and relaxed songs sung by many of his contemporaries, Siksna recorded quite a few up-tempo and energetic songs like ‘Sirdij nevajag skaitu’ and ‘Pasaulīte’.

Siksna also worked with many different composers. As with many artists of that era, most of the songs he recorded were composed by Raimonds Pauls, but this collection includes a number of tunes written by other composers, such as ‘Mātei’ (composed by Ivars Vīgners), ‘Negaidi mani velti’ (Andris Riekstiņš), and ‘Vasaras vakarā’ (Aleksandrs Kublinskis), among others.

Though certainly many of the songs can be considered lighthearted pop music, Siksna’s talents are still evident on some of the more serious numbers, like the sweepingly beautiful ‘Ugunsputns’ or the melancholy and wistful ‘Smeldzošais septembris’. Siksna’s singing prowess elevates these songs – taking what otherwise might be ‘ordinary’ pop songs and turning them into something far more memorable and artistic.

The CD booklet includes a brief biography of the composer by musicologist Daiga Mazvērsīte (in Latvian), as well as a few photographs.

This collection of songs by Žoržs Siksna is yet another worthy entry in the impressive Leģendas series, reaffirming the talents and exceptional vocal ability of the singer. With more than forty years’ experience in performing, he has achieved iconic status in Latvian popular music. This collection is a testament to Siksna’s talents and memorable performances.

For further information, please visit the MicRec Žoržs Siksna page.

Leģendas

Žoržs Siksna

MicRec, 2017

Track listing:

1. Genoveva
2. Muļķe sirds
3. Leonora
4. Vālodzīte
5. Negaidi mani velti
6. Mīļā (Mans kuģis tālu jūrā)
7. Ugunsputns
8. Pasaulīte
9. Jel, dod man bučiņ’
10. Sargeņģelis
11. Baltas ābeles zied
12. Ap Jāņiem Mārtiņos
13. Nepalaid garām
14. Sirdij nevajag skaitu
15. Mātei
16. Mana pirmā dziesma
17. Vasaras vakarā
18. Smeldzošais septembris
19. Herstvuda dziesma (with Mirdza Zīvere)
20. Visskaistākie vārdi (with Ineta Rudzīte and the Jelgava Tirkīzs Choir)

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.

Liepāja-based Zari create hybrid “post folk” on album Sazaroti

The Latvian folk song, through its deceptive simplicity, can easily be presented in many forms – the bi-yearly Sviests samplers includes songs that are inspired by Latvian folk songs, but in an ever-growing variety of genres. There seem to be an endless amount of possibilities for interpreting these ancient melodies, revealing new facets or aspects.

One group that provides a new take on folk song performance is Zari, based out of Liepāja, who perform a kind of ‘post folk’ or ‘electronic folk’ – that is, folk songs presented in a form that, though based on traditional instruments, is supplemented with synthesizers, effects, and electronic instruments, creating a hybrid style with both classic and modern elements.

The group’s efforts are documented on their debut album, 2017’s Sazaroti, released by the Lauska label. The band members are Zigmārs Miemis on effects and synthesizers, Uldis Meļķis on guitars, Vinsents Krebs playing the accordion, vocalists Ieva Dreimane and Liene Križevica, and drummer Sandis Volkovs.

The sweeping ‘Šuvo’, an atmospheric seven minute work based on both folk songs about bird callers (as well as driving away the darkness) and Midsummer, opens the album. This song, which is characteristic of the Kurzeme region where the group is from, captures much of what makes Zari unique, in that there are traditional instruments and singing alongside layered synthesizers to create a rich and engrossing work. The intricate sounds and arrangements even give this song (and others on the album) elements of progressive rock, and may bring to mind the works of Pink Floyd or Peter Gabriel.

According to the group, the name of the band – Zari (or ‘branch’) was chosen because though all the members are part of the same ‘tree’ each musician provides their own, unique ‘branch’ in the music. This can be observed in the intertwining of the two vocalists in songs like the peaceful and meditative ‘Rāmi rāmi’, with Dreimane and Križevica harmonizing and echoing each other, adding to the hypnotic feel of the song.

Accordion and guitar are combined in the haunting ‘Klusiet jauni klusiet veci’, to which are then added a pounding drumbeat, as well as soaring vocals, enhancing the spiritual and otherworldly nature of the song. Effects and synthesizers create memorable musical imagery in ‘Ziemelītis’, a song about sailing and the battle between the sailor and the north wind.

Though much of the album is atmospheric and dreamy, there is still plenty of energy and intensity, such as in the driving drums in ‘Gulu gulu’, as well as the powerful war song ‘Kara gabals (Karajājiņš)’, with its defiantly and resolutely sung ‘Labāk manu galvu ņēm’, nekā manu tēvu zem’ ’’ (Better to take my head than my fatherland).

The group also uses a variety of instruments from a variety of sources, including a banjo which was found on a trash heap as well as a miniature piano that were used in the song ‘Arājiņš (Bastalāvis)’, thereby expanding the already broad sound palette that was used to create the album.

Deftly and intricately weaving together both ancient and modern elements, Sazaroti is an often ethereal, often dreamy listen. Blending together electronic music and sounds, as well as traditional instruments, Zari reveal further facets and aspects of Latvian folk songs. One can hear the effort that went into creating and arranging these songs, based on the extensive layering of the music and effects. As with many other Lauska releases (the label specializes in Latvian folk music albums), this is another exceptional and singular release. The members of Zari have indeed brought together all of their separate branches to form an engrossing, musically layered collection of songs that join together ancient and modern elements.

For further information, please visit the Zari Facebook page.

Sazaroti

Zari

Lauska, LAUSKACD073, 2017

Track listing:

1. Šuvo
2. Ej projāmi ledutiņi
3. Teku teku
4. Arājiņš (Bastalāvis)
5. Kas grib laba kumeliņa
6. Rāmi rami
7. Klusiet jauni, klusiet veci
8. Kara gabals (Karjājiņš)
9. Gulu gulu
10. Ziemelītis
11. Labvakaris
12. Lietiņš

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.