Gregorian chants bring on electroshock

When the editor asked if I would be interested in reviewing a new compact disc of Gregorian chant from the Schola Cantorum Riga, my curiosity was piqued and I agreed. I couldn’t recall having come across a recording of medieval religious chant from a Latvian source before.

When the disc arrived, I took a quick look at it, admired the handsome packaging, then put it aside until I could spend some time with it. Eventually, I settled down with the disc, hoping for some pleasant listening. As sounds emerged from my headphones, I sat up in amazement. What’s this? A synthesizer?! I thought this was a disc of vocal music! Taking a more careful look at the back of the CD folder I examined at the fine print and saw that, in addition to the four vocalists, the group’s leader was listed as playing “keyboards.” Eventually I did hear voices, singing the traditional chant I had been expecting to hear, but the electronics continued in the background throughout the entire disc.

So, what did I make of this unexpected accompaniment? My first reaction was shock. Why would anyone want to “enhance” these beautiful, unaccompanied tunes that had survived over the centuries and are still being sung plain and unadorned to the glory of God? My second reaction was anger. The disc was credited as having been “arranged and produced” by Raimonds Tiguls, the group’s leader. However, nowhere on the packaging does it clearly state that all the tracks feature a synthesized backdrop of sound. Inside the trifold jacket, the skimpy notes (three sentences!) open with the statement “This album is based on traditional Gregorian chant…” but provides no rationale for the arrangements.

Well, in all fairness, plainchant did undergo an evolution over the centuries, serving as a basis for much of the glorious polyphony that presaged choral music as we know it. However, this was organic development that grew directly from the chant itself and the resulting polyphony successfully stood on its own, with the original chant often submerged and only subtly apparent. Instrumentally, many of Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ preludes based on Lutheran chorales were created in much the same fashion, with composers before and after him applying the same compositional principles, with varying degrees of subtlety and complexity.

So, there is precedent for using chant as a basis for new musical works. But that’s not what’s happening here. These newly composed electronic backgrounds are mostly an annoying, unnecessary distraction rather than an outgrowth or development of the original melodies, and often seem to be a rather blunt attempt to “strengthen” the sense of implied harmonic progression in the melodic outline of the original chant. While sometimes imitating familiar instrumental timbres, they are all too often just a variety of generated and sampled sounds clearly emanating from an electronic source, their gentle swooping a sort of aural equivalent of a lava lamp.

Nonetheless, there are some positive aspects. First, the singers are terrific! Not quite the seamless blend of Anonymous 4, but a very skilled and musically attractive male counterpart at the very least. I would love to hear them sing this repertoire without the superfluous backgrounds. Second, their Latin pronounciation is impeccable! After the many discs I’ve heard and reviews I’ve written complaining about the localized pronounciation of Latin, this comes as a breath of fresh air. Bravo! Third, the final track, an original, purely instrumental composition by Raimonds Tiguls, is intriguing.

I will admit, after additional hearings, that the accompaniments are varied, generally artfully and musically done, and become less offensive (except when a “pop” beat threatened to break out in the background a couple of times!). But they’re superfluous! Are contemporary listeners truly afflicted with such limited attention spans that they need additional aural stimulation to make this beautiful music more palatable?

If you think this may be your cup of tea, or if you’re desperate to hear this wonderful group despite the electronic baggage, then go for it. Otherwise, buyer beware!


De Angelis

Schola Cantorum Riga and Raimonds Tiguls

UPE Recording Co.,  2001


Song festival tribute mixes the old with novelties

Latvians are more likely to ask each other “Did you go to the last Song Festival?” rather than “Have you ever been to one?” Almost every year for decades, a song festival has been held somewhere in the world, and Latvians have flocked in droves to this most ubiquitous celebration of their culture and heritage. Non-Latvians may have difficulty understanding the excitement and emotion surrounding these events. Lasting several days to a week or more, the larger festivals feature numerous concerts, dance presentations, crafts exhibitions, nightly balls, and mass demonstrations of Latvian patriotism and nationalism—in short, total immersion in the Latvian ethos.

During the period of Soviet occupation of Latvia, festivals were held periodically in Latvia, but the repertoire and events were carefully manipulated. While the trappings of Latvian culture were present (at least those reasonably acceptable to Soviet authorities), many foreign influences were also felt and much was strictly proscribed. During those years, festivals in Latvian communities abroad helped keep the spirit alive, and when Latvians were finally allowed to hold a truly national festival in their own country in 1990, for the first time in 50 years, the excitement, pageantry, emotion, and sense of occasion were overwhelming.

The album Dziesmusvētki Rīgā features some highlights from that milestone event, as well as more recent selections. Issued as part of the national commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the founding of Latvia’s capital, Rīga, this compact disc mixes old favorites with some novelties.

The disc opens with choral arrangements, by Jānis Cimze, Emīlis Melngailis and Pāvuls Jurjāns, of beloved Latvian folksongs. Original compositions by Jāzeps Vītols (“Gaismas pils”) and Raimonds Pauls (“Manai dzimtenei”) follow, works that have come to be as well known to most Latvians as their national anthem.

The Festival Choir has numbered up to 24,000 singers in Rīga, and the ability to cohesively and musically conduct such a huge mass of singers with subtlety and nuance is clearly an art form. Effectively recording such a widely dispersed field of humanity, where balance problems are already inevitable when one end of the choir is hundreds of feet away from the other, is also a highly specialized skill, with happier results in some selections than others.

All the conductors represented here are experienced in directing such large forces, though some are more satisfying than others. Haralds Mednis’ performance of “Gaismas pils” is a model of clarity, unity, and musicality. On the other hand, Jānis Zirnis succumbs to the temptation to stretch phrases to their limits and overemphasize dramatic effects in Melngailis’ “Jāņu vakars.” Subtlety is not really the point of these events, though: for the singer, it’s the joy of lending one’s voice under such momentous circumstances; for the listener, it’s the thrill of hearing a huge, stirring sound.

Two purely instrumental works follow: an old waltz tune, “Brūklenājs,” zips along merrily but the ensemble often verges on chaos. A potpourri of popular Latvian beer-drinking songs, arranged for brass band as “Alutiņš,” chugs along in marching-band style of a century ago. A 1998 choral composition by Juris Vaivods titled “Rīgas dziesmas” concludes the more traditional fare on this disc, and features a number of familiar tunes with connections to Rīga’s past. Effectively done, and enthusiastically sung.

Finally, something completely different—excerpts from Zigmārs Liepiņš’ rock musical “Teika,” presented at a Latvian youth song festival held in 2000. Despite generally not being fond of rock music, I found parts of the work very enjoyable and arresting. This is not a work with a strong, personal profile, though—much of the material is firmly rooted in the sound of groups and composers popular in the 1970s in the West, such as Supertramp and Electric Light Orchestra, and Imants Kalniņš’ influence is also felt. I suspect this work would have been much more interesting on video—the excitement of the audience and photos in the booklet suggest a strong visual element.

The album has attractive packaging, with thorough annotations in Latvian and English. Proofreading by a native English speaker would have been useful, though. In short, if you’d like a souvenir of “Rīga 800” and a melange of different musical genres doesn’t discourage you, then by all means try this unique, generally enjoyable compilation.


Dziesmusvētki Rīgā

Various artists

MICREC and Latvijas Radio,  2001

MRCD 158

Riše’s music uses memories to challenge

The Return

A couple of years ago while surfing the Web for stray recordings of Latvian music, I came upon an obscure Danish compact disc of music by a Latvian-born composer who was completely unknown to me at the time—Indra Riše. Born in Latvia in 1961, where she studied piano and composition, she left for Denmark in 1993 for advanced study on a state scholarship and has lived there since. This second release of her music, The Return, has afforded me a welcome opportunity to get to know her music, and I’ve recently seen an announcement for a third release from Sweden, so she is clearly a rising star.

The Return has tremendous variety and begins with "The Return," written for the piquant combination of mezzo-soprano, flute, cello and accordion. The work presents an interesting paradox: while I did not find it particularly compelling as I listened to it, the impression left by the music is oddly haunting and effective in retrospect. Certainly, one usually has to hear an unfamiliar work several times before having a clear sense of it, but somehow this music felt so fragmented every time I listened to it that I didn’t sense a logical progression of events.

However, repeated listenings have enhanced the effect of the music in my memory, so perhaps the logic of this music is less obvious. Sometimes vaguely Mahlerian, gently nostalgic and wistful, occasionally bittersweet, there is an overall feeling of disjointed and fractured memory. The text by Kārlis Skalbe, one of the most beloved of Latvian poets, is powerful enough to withstand such an unusual adaptation with no loss of impact, but this is a very different way of treating his poetry than I can recall any other composer having done.

Some of these characteristics of experience versus memory are shared by "Pictures of Childhood," but in a more unusual way. The work consists exclusively of electronically distorted or morphed vocalizations, sounds and words from a solo singer, resulting in an often bizarre variety of effects, evocations and reflections on childhood memories. The first movement, with clever and often amusing chugging and hissing, seems to recall a train ride. The second is filled with the sound of barking dogs, but I was hard put to detect the fear that the composer claimed to evoke. The third consists of a chittering, chirping background with an aimlessly meandering vocal line. Perhaps a very young child listening distractedly to an improvised lullaby amid everyday sounds?

The earliest work in this program is "Three Colored Stories," for solo piano. Brilliantly played by the composer herself, its three movements sound rather French at times, though by no means derivative.

A more spiky and abstract work, the "String Quartet" is somewhat Stravinskyish at times, and occasionally reminscent of Pēteris Vasks’ music, in a laconic way.

Finally, the very emotive and sometimes raucous "Out of Darkness" is for solo saxophone, using a variety of techniques and playing styles, and progressing through a series of moods. The subtlety of mood and timbre is probably quite challenging and interesting to the player, but this piece did not draw me in like the other works on this album and I didn’t find it very appealing, either as I listened to it or recalling it afterward. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be, since it is about "unresolved conflict."

This is a splendidly produced, generously filled album with stellar performers and a superb recording, with program notes in four languages. Not aggressively avant-garde, much of this music still requires mental involvement and a readiness to approach it on the composer’s terms, not as mood music or mindless ambience. After an initial listening, I didn’t think I would come back to this disc very often, but some of it is so unexpectedly intriguing and haunting that I find myself being drawn to it more than I expected. Much of Riše’s music deals with memory, moving musicologist Ilze Liepiņa to write, "allusions to childhood and fairy tales are always important to the composer: being childish means for her being emotionally genuine and wise." Challenging as it may be at times, this is certainly sincere music. If you are moderately adventurous you should give it a try.


The Return

Indra Riše

Dacapo Records,  2000

CD 8.224142