Chamber music by composer Gundega Šmite based on Latvian war folksongs

With Latvia located between many larger powers, it is no surprise that many armies have crossed over and trampled Latvia throughout the centuries. War is also a recurring theme in Latvian folksongs – while some Latvian folksongs are heroic and are about the excitement of being a soldier and fighting in battle, there are many more songs that are tragic – about the toll that war takes on a person and a nation. Songs like ‘Div dūjiņas’ or ‘Es karā aiziedams’ reflect on the sadness and loss that results from war, as well as the inevitable heartbreak for families.

Latvian composer Gundega Šmite, using the wealth of folk material about war in Latvian folk songs and dainas, wove together what she calls a ‘folksong mystery’ – a chamber music work that combines both vocal and instrumental segments into a ‘story about the soul’s battle’, a work that is ‘dedicated to the souls that have been and continue to be extinguished by senseless war.’ Šmite enlisted the vocal instrumental ensemble Arcandela to perform this work, and a recording of Es, karā aiziedams was released in 2021.

The Arcandela ensemble is an eclectic collection of instruments and voices. The group, founded in 2015, is made up of soprano Aiga Bokanova, bass-baritone Kārlis Saržants, violinist Liene Brence, double bassist Oskars Bokanovs, Māris Rozenfelds on accordion and pianist Rihards Plešanovs.

Es, karā aiziedams has fourteen sections, with ten folksong interpretations and four instrumental interludes. It is often unsettling and harsh, and though it is based on Latvian folksongs, these are decidedly unmelodic interpretations and performances of them – as if to place emphasis on the text itself and the tragedy it describes. The burst of accordion that begins this performance, in ‘Kur tecēsi, mēnestiņi?’ is immediately unnerving and filled with dread, and the accordion is then supplemented by ominous sounds from the piano and violin, then joined by Bokanova and Saržants, singing folksong lyrics about the moon going to help young men in battle.

Many of the songs have themes of the soldier and his bride, about the sadness of them having to part, and potentially not seeing each other ever again. In ‘Lai ziedēja vainadziņš’, the bride and soldier have a dialogue, the bride questioning why the soldier wanted to marry her, and the soldier says he chose the girl who wept most sorrowfully. Bokanova and Saržants, with their expressive singing, illustrate the despondence of both. A similar atmosphere is generated in ‘Kara vīra līgaviņa’, where a mournful violin is joined by Bokanova’s disconsolate vocals in a song about a bride waiting (possibly in vain) for a soldier to return.

The hopelessness reaches a crescendo on ‘Labāk mani karā kāve’, a lament about how it would have been better to have been drowned as a child than to be raised as a soldier. Here Saržants sings in an almost grotesque manner, with the words themselves being pulled and squeezed, all the while a percussive hammer strikes (Šmite returns to this theme of a blacksmith in the final section of the work).

Es, karā aiziedams, Šmite’s vision of the nightmare of war and how it ruins lives and brings only sorrow is presented in a very expansive, almost explosive way at times, but elsewhere in an intimate and introspective way. It is difficult listening, full of harsh sounds and performances, but it will remain with the listener long after. The ensemble Arcandela vividly perform this vision, resulting in an almost cinematic performance. It remains vague what the ‘mystery’ is that is hinted at in the title of the work, but perhaps that is more meant to be a ‘mystery’ about why war and its associated heartbreak and tragedy is necessary. Šmite’s reinterpretation of these folksongs accentuates the sorrow and sadness contained within them. At times uneasy, at other times even frightening, Gundega Šmite and Arcandela have created an atmospheric and memorable Latvian musical perspective of war.

For further information, please visit the Skani website

Gundega Šmite – Es, karā aiziedams

Ensemble Arcandela

LMIC/SKANI 093, 2021

Track listing:

  1. Ievads. Kur tecēsi, mēnestiņi?
  2. Zīle brēca
  3. Intermēdija Nr. 1
  4. Lai ziedēja vainadziņš
  5. Div’ baloži strautā dzēra
  6. Intermēdija Nr. 2
  7. Līku loku upe tek
  8. Zviedz, zviedz, sirmais zirdziņ!
  9. Intermēdija Nr. 3
  10. Kara vīra līgaviņa
  11. Labāk mani karā kāva
  12. Intermēdija Nr. 4
  13. Pārskrēj’ brāļa kumeliņš
  14. Postlūdija. Kur tecēsi, kaļva sieva?

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.

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.