Kamēr choir’s “Pelēcis/Plakidis” CD features sacred and secular works

The youth choir Kamēr…, long renowned for its high artistic quality, has also recorded many groundbreaking and noteworthy CDs. Many new compositions have been written especially for them, and their recording output includes collections of such songs such as World Sun Songs (2008), Mēness dziesmas (2012), and Amber Songs (2014). On their latest CD, recorded under the watchful eye of artistic director Jānis Liepiņš and released in 2017, they have chosen to record works by two significant Latvian composers – Georgs Pelēcis and Pēteris Plakidis, on a collection simply entitled Pelēcis / Plakidis.

At first glance, it may seem like a curious choice to combine the two composers onto one album. The immediate connection is that both composers were born in 1947 and celebrated their 70th birthdays in 2017. Pelēcis is known for his sacred works, often with Russian Orthodox themes, while the late Plakidis (who passed away in 2017) often composed more secular choir works based on poetry by Latvian authors. However, there is a clear spiritual and emotional element in the works of both composers, which provides for a musical link between the two.

The sacred nature of Pelēcis’ choral compositions is made clear from the Russian Orthodox inspired works on this collection, such as the vivacious ‘Hristos Voskrese’ and the more somber ‘Otche Nash’. Pelēcis is clearly at home in this genre, and his sacred works are at once deeply spiritual and personal, and have the necessary respectful and reverent interpretation by Kamēr…

One of Plakidis’ most powerful choir works is ‘Tavas saknes tavā zemē’, with poetry by Vizma Belševica. This song was included as part of the closing choral concert of the 2018 Song Festival, and was one of the most memorable and moving moments of the event. The song, with its quiet and slow introduction, which builds to a thunderous crescendo, is a richly emotional work, and, when performed by Kamēr…, this transcendent work receives an equally transcendent performance. Though composed during the Soviet occupation, this song, with its lyrics about taking root in the Latvian land still resonates with listeners today.

Though Pelēcis does focus more on Orthodox choral works, his creative output also includes arrangements of Latvian folksongs, but still with a spiritual interpretation, such as the arrangement of ‘Stāvēju, dziedāju’. Though seemingly just a song about singing on a hilltop, Pelēcis’ interpretation is almost hymn-like, like a song of praise for singing itself, giving this folk song a beautiful richness and depth.

With its repeated refrain of ‘Viss labais aiziet debesīs’ (All good things fly heavenwards), Plakidis’ ‘In Memoriam’ (lyrics by Latvian poet Broņislava Martuževa) is a weighty and meditative work, and, as its title would indicate, almost requiem-like. The sound of the choir, particularly the appropriately heavenly soprano parts, makes for a memorable rendition of this work.

The CD booklet includes brief biographies of the composers and the choir in Latvian and English, but one does wish they delved further into the song selection – why these particular songs were selected for this collection as well as their significance and meaning.

Combining the choral works of Georgs Pelēcis and Pēteris Plakidis on the collection Pelēcis / Plakidis, the youth choir Kamēr… again confirms not only their singing and artistic skill, but also their innate ability to interpret the works of Latvian composers, elevating them and revealing the many spiritual and romantic nuances within them. Still, though, considering the broad and varied oeuvre of both composers, one might have hoped that each had a CD entirely devoted to their works (particularly Plakidis, considering his recent passing and his significant choral music legacy). Conductor and artistic director Jānis Liepiņš (who, at the time of this writing, had recently departed Kamēr… and turned over direction of the choir to Aivis Greters) has overseen an excellent and richly nuanced recording, confirming the significant contributions of both these composers to Latvian choir music.

For further information, please visit the youth choir Kamēr… website.

Pelēcis/Plakidis

Youth Choir Kamēr…

Biedrība Kamēr mūzika, KCD014, 2017

Track listing:

  1. Hristos voskrese – Georgs Pelēcis
  2. Otche nash – Georgs Pelēcis
  3. I See His Blood Upon the Rose – Georgs Pelēcis
  4. Eksapostilārijs – Georgs Pelēcis
  5. Credo – Georgs Pelēcis
  6. In Memoriam – Pēteris Plakidis
  7. Tavas saknes tavā zemē – Pēteris Plakidis
  8. Vasaras vidus dziesmiņa – Pēteris Plakidis
  9. Stāvēju, dziedāju – Georgs Pelēcis
  10. Man dziesmiņu nepietrūka – Georgs Pelēcis
  11. Izkal pakavu akmens zirgam – Pēteris Plakidis
  12. Bumburjānis bumburēja – Pēteris Plakidis
  13. Fatamorgana – Pēteris Plakidis
  14. Aleluja – Georgs Pelēcis
  15. Ausmas stundā – Pēteris Plakidis

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.

“Ielūgums uz dzīvi” features 100 songs by Kaspars Dimiters

Singer and songwriter Kaspars Dimiters has been a major voice in Latvian music for decades now. His lyrics are often deeply personal, as well as being blunt and unvarnished observations about life in Latvia – how difficult it is for many and the struggles and challenges many face. His repertoire includes songs that touch on topics like alcoholism, drug abuse, corruption, and poverty, and, consequently, many of his songs are often dark and disturbing, but are still, on occasion, positive and hopeful.

Dimiters’ work as a songwriter now covers many decades, and, in 2017, to celebrate his 60th birthday, the artist released a combination book of lyrics and digital song collection entitled Ielūgums uz dzīvi, that collected 100 of his songs.

It is telling that one of Dimiters’ best known and most celebrated albums – 1994’s Krusta skola – is included in its entirety on this collection. This album, recorded with guitarist Gints Sola (who many will know from his work with Jauns mēness), is both polished and refined, with many songs inspired by his work with his Krusta skola center for troubled youth, as well as work with those suffering from alcohol or drug dependencies. Songs like ‘Glāze ūdens’ and ‘Pasaule ir tāda skola’ are, like many of the songs on the album, wordy and weighty, as Dimiters presents his often bleak world view.

Perhaps Dimiters’ best work is his 1988 album Mans kumoss pilsētas baložiem, and, for that era in Latvia, the album was almost revolutionary, considering its topics and lyrical style were different than just about everything else in Latvian music at the time. Perhaps only Dimiters could write a song like ‘Suņa dzīve’ – a heart wrenching song about a drunk and his dog, or the touching ‘Muzikants’, a song about a musician who dies mid-performance and is quickly replaced by someone else and forgotten. Ielūgums uz dzīvi contains almost all the songs from this landmark album.

Over the course of 100 songs, from his earliest songs (written in the 1970s) to songs written recently, Dimiters displays a broad range of emotions and topics. From the tragic ‘Fukušīmas suns’ (a song about the Fukushima disaster), to the hopeful ‘Visu Latvijai dodu’ (one of Dimiters’ few hopeful songs about Latvia), as well as the cynical ‘Dziesma par nolaupītajiem grašiem’ (Dimiters’ lament for the greed that he observes everywhere in Latvia), Dimiters can be at times bluntly harsh, as well as tenderly optimistic. Dimiters also finds inspiration from his Orthodox faith, in songs like ‘Puisēns ar lukturīti’, ‘Dzejnieks un svētums’ and ‘Nāve ir dzimšanas diena’. However, it does become clear that Dimiters becomes even more cynical with each passing year, and he has been an outspoken critic of Latvian politics and society throughout the years.

Though the album does include one hundred songs, which is probably more than enough for the average listener, one does wish that he did include more songs from earlier in his career. Most of the songs on the collection feature just Dimiters on vocals and guitar, and though that is certainly appropriate considering the personal nature of Dimiters’ songs, it does mean that the songs can sound very similar, if not occasionally monotonous. It helps that some of Dimiters’ songs from the 1980s (which often featured a full band) are sprinkled throughout, offering a change of pace from his more weighty songs from the 1990s and later. Some curious omissions are the rest of the songs from Mans kumoss pilsētas baložiem (such as ‘Ne šlāgerēt, ne līderēt’ and ‘Ne šlāgerēt, ne līderēt’) as well as other songs from his earlier period – like the beautiful and wistful duet with Sandra Ozolīte ‘Noburtie’ or the energetic ‘Rozianna’. However, almost all of Dimiters’ songs can be found on his website, for those looking for more to listen to.

Of course, if it is difficult to discuss Kaspars Dimiters without mentioning how controversial many of his words and actions have been throughout the years. Dimiters has spoken negatively about immigrants, politicians, diaspora Latvians, western liberals, and has reserved most of his extensive venom for homosexuals. Unfortunately, many of his abhorrent views have made it into his songs, but, fortunately, there are few of these kinds of songs on this collection – mercifully, songs like the dreadful ‘Zilā pasaka’ are not included here.

The one hundred songs (more than seven and a half hours of music) on Ielūgums uz dzīvi may be too much Dimiters for some. Others may find some of Dimiters’ expressed views to be so offensive as to dismiss listening to any of his songs out of hand. There lies the main puzzle of Dimiters – how can someone who, at times, espouses such extreme and hateful words be able to create such beautiful and moving songs? For those that are willing to give them a listen, Ielūgums uz dzīvi does indeed contain many songs that reveal Dimiters to be a songwriter without parallel, someone who writes very pointed and direct songs. Though often harsh and bleak, Dimiters’ songs can also be very affecting and poignant, with a direct and realistic language that few other poets have, and this collection is a thorough overview of Dimiters’ large contribution to Latvian music throughout the decades.

For more information visit Kaspars Dimiters’ website.

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.

Rancane’s meditative exploration of folk songs on new album

Double-bassist Stanislav Yudin and ethnic singer Asnate Rancāne, though from different musical backgrounds (Yudin being a jazz musician, while Rancāne has a folk music background) teamed up to record the album Op. 2, a collection of folk song arrangements. The album, improvisational and subdued, is a meditative exploration of not just Latvian folk songs, but songs of other cultures as well.

Though the album is mainly just double bass and vocals, both musicians bring other instruments to the mix, as Yudin adds the kokle, keyboards and percussion and Rancāne also performs the kokle and reed pipe. These instruments, as well as those of some guest musicians, get synthesised into the diverse musical collage that appears on Op. 2.

The title track, an improvisation on the Latvian folk song ‘Tumsiņā(i), vakarā(i)’ begins with a quiet, plaintive introduction on the double bass, while Rancāne’s powerful, confident traditional singing is first heard at what seems like a distance, then slowly approaches. The song conjures up a mystic and magical vision, and the combination of the slow mournful sounds of Yudin’s double bass and Rancāne’s vocals leads the listener on a journey through a dark night.

The duo take inspiration from various folk songs, such as from the Bulgarian song ‘Яна турчин лъгала’, a song from the era of the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria, about a Bulgarian girl who lies to a Turk about changing her religion from Orthodox Christianity to Islam. Rancāne faithfully reproduces the Balkan melody and character of the song, while Yudin’s slow and deliberate playing generates an authentic atmosphere.

‘Cik dziļa jūra’ is an introspective song of solitude, and is enhanced further by the sounds of the traditional Latvian kokle, possibly meant to evoke the sensation of being alone at the seashore, listening to the sounds of nature, and Yudin and Rancāne conjure up a similarly dreamy landscape. In a similar vein is their interpretation of the Russian song ‘Русалки’, a song from Trinity Week, where one of the elements is that the mermaids come out of the sea at this time and need to be given gifts (in this case, bread, salt, and onions). Yudin and Rancāne develop a magical music vision of this mystical event.

Saxophonist Artis Gāga and percussionist Artis Orubs join in on ‘Ganu dziesma’, a musical exploration inspired by the sounds of herders calling to their flock. Gāga and Orubs, as well as trombonist Laura Rozenberga, appear on the final track ‘Inspiration’, which serves as a dramatic and fateful conclusion to the album. With the thundering strings and brass, the performance, inspired by a Ukrainian song, offers a sharp contrast to the more meditative and quiet songs that came previously.

As there are songs from a number of different nations, it would have been helpful to include the lyrics and translations for non-native speakers, or at least an explanation of the song text (or even an indication of which culture a song came from), which would help develop an appreciation of the performances and interpretations even further. However, not knowing the details of a song adds to the mystery, which is perhaps the musicians’ desired effect.

Op. 2 is an engrossing and enchanting journey through not just Latvian folk songs, but also Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian as well. Using mainly just double bass and vocals, Stanislav Yudin and Asnate Rancāne offer an entrancing and authentic voyage, with lush musical textures revealed by these improvisations. Rancāne, perhaps best known for her work with the modern folk group Tautumeitas, offers a quite reserved performance, as compared to the often boisterous energy displayed by that ensemble, but that just confirms her versatility, as well as how Latvian (and other) folk songs can work in many different settings and musical environments. The tandem have created a polished and vivid album, though mostly reserved and subdued, the album still engrosses the listener with its depth and creativity.

Op. 2

Stanislav Yudin, Asnate Rancāne

Brīvās mūzikas centrs, 2017

Track listing:

    1. 2
    2. Cik dziļa jūra
    3. Яна турчин лъгала
    4. Ganu dziesma
    5. Ne bet kokia
    6. Saulīte
    7. Русалки
    8. Inspiration

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.