Latvian Radio Choir records Jānis Ivanovs’ Vocalises

Among the many benefits and advantages of having a national record company (for example Skani in Latvia), is that many composers and ensembles can be recorded and spotlighted, and comparatively rarely heard works and lesser-known aspects of a composer’s oeuvre can be brought to light.

Latvian composer Jānis Ivanovs is well known for his symphonic works, particularly his twenty completed symphonies. However, perhaps less well known is Ivanovs’ contribution to choir music. Interestingly, Ivanovs’ comparatively small contribution is only vocalises – songs with no words. Recognizing the historical and creative value of these works, Skani released a recording of all of them in 2022. Simply entitled Jānis Ivanovs – Vocalises, the works were recorded by the distinguished Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava.

Ivanovs began work on the vocalises in the 1960s and worked on them until his death in 1983. This collection contains all of them, as well as three newer editions (arrangements updated by composer Imants Zemzaris).

With no text to go by, the listener has only the title of the work to provide information, but Ivanovs skillfully creates atmospheric, picturesque musical visions with just the wordless voices of the choir. Many of the works have themes of nature, such as the mysterious, almost ghostly ‘Migla’ (Fog), where the female voices create an uneasy, eerie atmosphere, almost like voices that are lost in the fog calling out.

A similar melancholic mood is generated in ‘Lietainā dienā’ (On a Rainy Day), where the soaring female voices are balanced with the harsher, almost jittery voices of the male singers. The dreamily flowing ‘Gubu mākoņi’ (Cumulus Clouds) does conjure up imagines of clouds slowly making their way across the sky, but with a seeming tinge of sadness for the clouds’ departure. The singers of the Latvian Radio choir effectively create these natural landscapes with their expressive vocals.

The appropriately titled ‘Zīmējums’ (Illustration) shows Ivanovs adding layers of voices, like colors, to make a vivid picture or portrait, while the mournful ‘Eleģija’ (Elegy) begins somberly and quietly, with a gentle melody that rises and falls, all the time growing in intensity.

The CD booklet also includes an essay about these vocalises by composer Imants Zemzaris, which adds interesting details about these compositions – for example, Ivanovs often uses chromatic elements in his music, as well as styles influenced by Russian liturgical music. This would likely be because during World War I, as a refugee, he fled to Russia, where, as a young boy, he sang in church choirs. Zemzaris also notes the themes of nature woven throughout these compositions were likely inspired by childhood memories, as well as “scenes and landscapes of rural Latgale and Vidzeme.”

At times dreamy and atmospheric, at other times harsh and dissonant, and often hauntingly beautiful, Jānis Ivanovs’ Vocalises exhibits a broad and impressive range of what can be achieved with wordless vocals. Ivanovs’ compositions are enhanced by the vivid voices and performances of the Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava, and, thanks to the efforts of the Skani record label, we are able to enjoy this lesser known area of Ivanovs’ musical offering.

For further information, please visit the Skani website and the Latvian Radio Choir website.

Jānis Ivanovs – Vocalises

Latvian Radio Choir, conductor Sigvards Kļava

LMIC/SKANi 144, 2022

Track listing:

1. Dzimtenes ainava

2. Rudens dziesma

3. Prelūdija

4. Gubu mākoņi

5. Zīmējums (Imants Zemzaris ed.)

6. Elēģija

7. Ziemas rīts

8. Jūsma

9. Lietainā dienā

10. Varoņu piemiņai

11. Migla

12. I Prelūdija

13. II Fūga

14. Zīmējums

15. Gubu mākoņi (Imants Zemzaris ed.)

16. Gājputni

17. Migla

18. Cantus Monodicus. Gloria

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . 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.

Uģis Prauliņš explores sounds of Renaissance era with ancient music ensemble Ars Antiqua Riga

Latvian composer Uģis Prauliņš has long been known for his diverse and striking compositions, which often combine both modern and ancient elements, such as Renaissance and Gregorian styles. One of his best-known works, the oratorio Odi et Amo, a recording of which was released in 1999, featured the Riga Cathedral Boys’ Choir alongside synthesizers and electric guitars.

Prauliņš continues to explore the sounds and styles of different eras, combining them in new and intriguing way. A more recent composition, the Mass and Interludes L’homme armé, was recorded by the ancient music ensemble Ars Antiqua Riga (a vocal ensemble with five members, including artistic director Pēteris Vaickovskis), and was released by the Latvian national record company Skani in 2022.

The work, which combines elements of the traditional Christian mass, as well as songs and texts about war and peace, was partially inspired by the French knight’s song L’homme armé, and also grew from a collaboration between Prauliņš and Vaickovskis, who invited the composer to write interludes on Franco-Flemish Renaissance era composer Johannes Ockeghem’s Mass L’homme armé.

L’homme armé uses less of the modern elements than Odi et Amo did, though the composer himself does perform the synthesizer on some of the tracks, such as the subdued and dreamy introduction ‘Introit’. Though the text is about how the “armed man should be feared”, the work has a meditative nature, in contrast to the text about battle.

Prauliņš offers an authentic Gregorian style interpretation of the traditional ‘Kyrie’ section of the Mass, a work of sublime beauty, with the individual voices of the members of Ars Antiqua Riga rising and falling in harmony with each other, supplemented by the sounds of the sackbut (an ancient version of the trombone) performed by Vairis Nartišs and Kaspars Majors.

The album was recorded at St. John’s Church in Riga, and one of the many benefits of the recording location is that the church organ, here played by Jānis Pelše, can be used throughout the performances, both with the singers, as well as individual instrumental works like ‘Manzarek M. Monk’ and ‘Trouvére’.

Though most of the work is meditative and contemplative, there are lively and powerful moments, such as the almost bellicose ‘Perc. Org. Shuffle’, which brings forth the battle elements of the text. The voices of Ars Antiqua Riga also give Prauliņš’ ‘Gloria’ a triumphant air, with their resounding performance of the text ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, which then leads to the celebratory ‘Hosanna in Excelsis’ and its repeated, exultant ‘Hallelujah’.

There are also moments of tension, particularly in the almost abrasive ‘Dies irae’, where Prauliņš’ music accentuates the fear and terror in the text, and this is further enhanced by the dramatic and energetic organ performance by Pelše, along with the ominous sounds of the sackbuts.

Though firmly rooted in the Renaissance era, Uģis Prauliņš L’homme armé adds a few modern touches to make for an immersive and atmospheric listen. Aided by the immense vocal talents of Ars Antiqua Riga and their artistic director Pēteris Vaickovskis, along with skilled organist Jānis Pelše and sackbut players Vairis Nartišs and Kaspars Majors, the work proves to be an inspiring and moving prayer for peace.

For further information, please visit the Skani website.

Uģis Prauliņš. L’homme armé

Ars Antiqua Riga

LMIC/SKANi 142, 2022

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . 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.

Latvian Tattoos Survey of Latvians living abroad

The aim of this survey is to find out about those who live outside Latvia and have Latvian tattoos. Who is getting them? Is it only Millennials and Gen Zs who are getting them or are previous generations now coming on board too? Are more men than women getting Latvian tattoos or viceversa? Why are Latvians living abroad getting a Latvian tattoo? And what do their friends and family think of this? Are tattoos replacing Latvian jewellery as a symbol of ethnic belonging?

During the Latvian Song Festival many Latvians who live abroad and have Latvian tattoos were visible on the streets of Riga. Some were very prominent on their wearers’ bodies, others were only visible on hot short-sleeve shirt days. This led to my interest in finding out more about Latvians (of all generations) living abroad and their interest in Latvian tattoos and what these tattoos mean to them. 
If you live anywhere outside Latvia, are of Latvian descent (1st, 2nd, 3rd or even 4th generation), or have an affiliation to Latvians and have a tattoo which you consider to be a Latvian tattoo (or plan to get one), please fill out this survey! Please complete the survey by October 10th, 2023.

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.