State Choir ‘Latvija’ performs new choral works with five elements theme

The centenary of Latvia, celebrated in 2018, inspired many artistic and cultural projects. Among them was an invitation from conductor Māris Sirmais and the State Choir Latvija to one hundred different Latvian composers to compose a new choir work. The only requirements were that the text should correspond to one of five ‘elements’ – fire, water, earth, sky, or love, and the work be at a level that an amateur choir would be able to perform it.

Seventy-seven composers answered the call, and all the resulting choir works were performed in concert by Latvija and Sirmais, throughout 2017 and 2018. In 2021, a selection of the works was released on the CD Aeternum. Over the course of sixteen choir compositions, from a varied group of composers including both well-known names and those still early in their careers, the State Choir Latvija reveals the many facets and layers of Latvian choir music.

Among the composers are names that have helped raise Latvia’s profile in the field of choir music in recent decades. Ēriks Ešenvalds, known for his skill with melody and harmony, contributed the gently flowing ‘Rasa’, with poetry by Rasa Maija Armale, who wrote a poem inspired by her own name Rasa (or ‘Dew’). Pēteris Vasks provided the somber ‘Mūsu kalni’ (or ‘Our Mountains’), based on a poem by Knuts Skujenieks, which is slightly ironically titled – in that Latvia does not actually have mountains. However, as per the poem, Latvia does have lofty and noble clouds, which are Latvia’s mountains.

There are several younger composers represented on this collection as well. Jēkabs Jančevskis’ dramatic, mysterious ‘Aeternum’, with poetry by Pēteris Brūveris, with its repeated phrase ‘mēs katrs sevī nesam mūžību’ (we each carry eternity within us), is at once a broad view of eternity and deeply personal. Anna Ķirse found inspiration in Latvian folk songs for her mystical ‘Bieza migla zemi sedza’. The folk song texts, full of rich, colorful imagery of the sun, fog, and clouds, inspires an equally rich musical setting for this ancient text. Irīna Mihailovska’s appropriately fiery ‘Uguns rituāls’, also based on Latvian folk texts, is full of mysticism and mythology, and alternates between energetic sparks and contemplative melodies.

Many of the composers are from a more academic background, but there are also representatives from the field of popular music. ‘Piesaukšana’, with music by Jānis Aišpurs from the rock group The Sound Poets, with poetry by Ojārs Vācietis, is inspirational and stirring, with Aišpurs’ music bringing an almost tangible electricity to Vācietis’ words of hope for the Latvian people. Juris Kulakovs, of the legendary rock group Pērkons, offers the tender and gentle ‘Mežā. Nakts…’, text by Jānis Audzespiedurs. The composition is like a lullaby, and the words describe night descending on a forest. Uldis Marhilēvičs, the author of many popular Latvian rock songs throughout the decades, along with prolific rock lyricist Guntars Račs, deliver the patriotic ‘Mēs esam’, a promise to always be with Latvia.

Many other distinguished and illustrious Latvian composers are also featured in this collection. The choir works include Raimonds Tiguls’ haunting ‘Griezes dziesma’, Andris Kontauts’ tragic ‘Jūras māte, Jūras māte, valdi savas kalponītes’, Maija Einfelde’s emotionally direct and honest ‘Krāsas’, as well as works by Valts Pūce, Andris Dzenītis, Rihards Zaļupe, Vilnis Šmīdbergs, and Ansis Sauka.

As a birthday gift, a collection of seventy-seven new choir songs is a particularly generous and memorable one. Latvian composers from all over the world contributed to this impressive endeavor and added even more riches to an already impressive national collection. Though Aeternum collects just a selection of those works, over the sixteen works contained on the album, the depth and diversity of Latvian choir music is fully apparent. As performed by the State Choir Latvija and conductor Māris Sirmais, this collection provides a vivid, picturesque celebration of both Latvia’s centenary and the exceptional Latvian choir music repertoire.

For more information, please visit the Choir Latvija website


State Choir Latvija

LMIC/SKANi 089, 2021

Track listing:

  1. Ēriks Ešenvalds – Rasa
  2. Irīna Mihailovska – Uguns rituāls
  3. Valts Pūce – Dziesmu svētkos
  4. Andris Dzenītis – No debesīm
  5. Pēteris Vasks – Mūsu kalni
  6. Rihards Zaļupe – Sauciens vējā
  7. Uldis Marhilēvičs – Mēs esam
  8. Vilnis Šmīdbergs – Tā lapa, tā lapa, kas lejup krīt
  9. Maija Einfelde – Krāsas
  10. Andris Kontauts – Jūras māte, Jūras māte, valdi savas kalponītes
  11. Anna Ķirse – Bieza migla zemi sedza
  12. Jānis Aišpurs – Piesaukšana
  13. Ansis Sauka – Ar zvaigžņu kluso gaismu…
  14. Juris Kulakovs – Mežā. Nakts…
  15. Raimonds Tiguls – Griezes dziesma
  16. Jēkabs Jančevskis – Aeternum

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.

Creative & intriguing sonic explorations on Santa Ratniece’s new album

The works of Latvian composer Santa Ratniece defy categorization or even description at times. A combination of music and sonic explorations, liberal use of sound effects and electronic instruments, her works eschew traditional structures and forms, and can be at times bewildering, at times unnerving, but always creative and intriguing. She finds inspiration throughout the world – the Middle East, Asia, Armenia, and from cultures such as the Ainu and Tibetans, among many others.

Performing Ratniece’s complex works requires a commensurate amount of skill and talent, and, on the album Vigilia del Mattino, a collection of Ratniece’s choir compositions released in 2021, such an ensemble is enlisted – the Latvian Radio Choir, conducted by Sigvards Kļava and Kaspars Putniņš. The Latvian Radio Choir is perhaps the premier interpreter of modern Latvian choir music, and the choir considers itself a ‘creative lab’, in that they actively encourage composers to push the boundaries of what is possible and what is expected of the human voice.

The work ‘Vigilia del Mattino’, with text from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, begins with a rumbling sound in the harp, performed by Jekaterina Suvorova. The rumbling alternates with an rising cascade, perhaps suggesting a duality between the low, ominous sound and the more positive, perhaps even heavenly, higher sound. The sound of the choir is almost formless and shapeless, with various voices flowing in and out, giving the work a kind of dreamlike quality. Alighieri’s words, from the ‘Paradise’ of the Divine Comedy, are about a man waking up and seeing the rising sun, and the text has a kind of disorientation about it, and Ratniece’s music evokes that sense of confusion of waking, but also wonderment at the sight of the light.

‘War Sum Up: Music. Manga. Machines.’ Is an avant-garde opera created by Kirsten Dehlholm, of the Danish theater group Hotel Pro Forma, and includes music by three different composers, including Santa Ratniece. Ratniece’s contributions – seven brief scenes or stories, are included on this album. Themes of war, light, dark, and the supernatural are woven into the performance, inspired by Japanese culture, including Manga art. The work, at times shrill and abrasive (perhaps to indicate the horror of war), but at times quiet and contemplative, is an unnerving listen, especially when the otherworldly electronic sounds are included in the mix. The voices of the Latvian Radio Choir are at times ominous, at times ethereal, and give the work a kind of pulsation or even punctuation as the voices pop in and then fade away. The metallic sounds in the sixth section, along with the undulating voices of the choir, adds to the uneasiness, even dread, that often appears throughout the work.

‘fuoco celeste’, the text of which is taken from prayers by St. Francis of Assisi, is a swirling, soaring work, enhanced by the cello performance of Guna Šnē. There is a sense of flight throughout the composition, which is appropriate, considering that much of the text is about birds. The choir even reproduces the sound of birds throughout the work, creating an atmospheric prayer.

Ensemble Sarband, a collective that specializes in Middle Eastern music and instruments, appears on ‘nada el layli’, a work that uses texts in Arabic from the Songs of Solomon. Here Ratniece creates a mysterious, exotic atmosphere with the sounds of the Middle Eastern instruments like the kemenche, and adds many sonic dimensions to this ancient song of love.

Santa Ratniece has established herself as a unique voice in choir music. Drawing influences and inspiration from all over the world, she synthesizes ancient texts with modern sounds, creating a sonic journey throughout many cultures and religions. The music is challenging to listen to – there are nuances and intricacies throughout the works, and this music necessitates the performance of a world class ensemble like the Latvian Radio Choir. The talent of the choir and the expertise of conductors Sigvards Kļava and Kaspars Putniņš help create a diverse, immersive listening experience on Vigilia del Mattino.

For further information, please visit the Latvian Radio Choir website and Santa Ratniece’s website.

Latvian Radio Choir

Santa Ratniece: Vigilia del Mattino

LMIC/SKANi 086, 2021

Track listing:

  1. Vigilia del Mattino

War Sum Up: Music. Manga. Machines

  • I.
  • II.
  • III.
  • IV.
  • V.
  • VI.
  • VII.
  • fuoco celeste
  • nada el layli

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.

‘Distant light’: sacred and secular compositions for trumpet and organ

The organ and the trumpet feature on the album Distant Light, released in 2020 by the Latvian national record label Skani. Performed by trumpetist Jānis Porietis and organist Ilze Reine, this slightly unusual combination of instruments has still generated interest and contributions from Latvian composers, and Distant Light, with eleven compositions by eight different composers, displays the many textures and sound palettes that are available when putting the trumpet and organ together.

Composer Maija Einfelde supplies two compositions to this collection, ‘Zvaigžņu kalns’ (Hill of Stars) and ‘Gloria’. ‘Zvaigžņu kalns’ ir a work for solo trumpet, and Porietis’ rich and melodious sound enriches this work, making the long notes of the work almost float and soar in the distance. On ‘Gloria’, Porietis is joined by Reine, and this work, as its title would suggest, is celebratory, almost triumphant. However, as with many of Einfelde’s works, there are still moments and flashes of darkness and harshness, as the organ suddenly becomes weighty, the trumpet becomes contemplative, and the work has a somber tone, but returns to elation at the work’s conclusion.

Rihards Dubra, a composer whose works often are deeply spiritual, provides ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Agnus Dei’, two works inspired by the Christian mass. ‘Kyrie’, as befitting a prayer, has Reine performing a tender, fragile melody in the organ, while Porietis’ trumpet sounds as if at a distance. ‘Agnus Dei’ is more contemplative, reserved. Dubra commented that his goal with these works is to make the trumpet a kind of ‘singer’, and Porietis’ performance resembles a vocal melody, as the trumpet and the organ both soar to the conclusion of the work.

Along with Einfelde’s ‘Gloria’, Dubra’s ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Agnus Dei’, composer Alvils Altmanis contributes additional mass sections – ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’. Though the sections are by three different composers, the works flow together with Reine and Porietis providing the overarching spiritual foundation for the performance. Altmanis’ ‘Sanctus’, a song of praise, is weighty, yet calm, with Porietis’ soft tones layered on top of Reine’s understated performance. ‘Benedictus’ is even more reserved, with a very gentle trumpet melody together with a quiet, reflective organ song.

“Jūras paņemtajiem” (To Those Taken by the Sea), a work by Ilze Arne, is dedicated to those who have lost their lives at sea and is a work full or tragedy and longing for those lost. Porietis’ trumpet playing is expressive, while Reine’s gently flowing organ imbues this work with sadness and melancholy.

Romualds Jermaks’ ‘Lux Aeterna’ continues the spiritual themes of many of the works on this album, and is a gentle prayer for peace, while Dzintra Kurme-Gedroica’s expansive ‘Quo vadis’, the longest work on the album, is a contemplative, philosophical work, pondering questions of humanity and where are we all headed.

‘Larghetto from the Concerto for Trumpet’ by Goergs Pelēcis, one of the earliest works on this collection, is also envisioned as a walk around Tempļa iela, a street in the Pāŗdaugava area of Rīga. Porietis and Reine conjure up an image of a solitary evening walk, of cobblestones and wooden houses.

Renāte Stivriņa’s ‘Gaviles’ (Rejoicing), a work inspired by the Latvian Song Festival, also uses the sound of the trumpet to mimic a human singing voice and is perhaps the most Latvian of all the works on the album – a celebration of singing and the importance of song throughout Latvia’s history.

Besides displaying the skills of trumpetist Jānis Porietis and organist Ilze Reine, Distant Light also reveals the singular skills of many Latvian composers, their ability to compose distinct and individual works for this combination of instruments. The resonance of the trumpet and the richness of the Rīga Cathedral organ, throughout compositions both sacred and secular, make for a rewarding listen.

For more information, please visit the Skani website

Distant Light

Jānis Porietis – trumpet, Ilze Reine – organ

LMIC/SKANi 094, 2020

Track listing

  1. Maija Einfelde – “Zvaigžņu kalns”
  2. Rihards Dubra – Kyrie
  3. Maija Einfelde – Gloria
  4. Alvils Altmanis – Sanctus
  5. Alvils Altmanis – Benedictus
  6. Rihards Dubra – Agnus Dei
  7. Ilze Arne – “Jūras paņemtajiem”
  8. Romualds Jermaks – Lux aeterna
  9. Dzintra Kurme-Gedroica – “Quo vadis”
  10. Georgs Pelēcis – Larghetto no Koncerta trompetei
  11. Renāte Stivriņa – “Gaviles”

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.