State Choir Latvija reveals richness and depth of Vasks’ sacred choir works

The choir music of Pēteris Vasks, particularly his sacred choir works, have long been an integral thread in the fabric of Latvian academic music. Not just in Latvia, but all over the world, his expressive and weighty works have been recognized and appreciated for their distinctive sound and emotional depth. At times discordant and harsh, other times gentle and hopeful, his music affects all those who hear it.

It is appropriate then, that, for the Latvian centenary in 2018, the Latvian national recording label Skani brought together the leading musicians in Latvia to record an album of Pēteris Vasks’ choir music. The State Choir Latvija, along with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and the Riga Professional Symphonic Band, all conducted by Māris Sirmais, released the album Lūgšana (Prayer) in 2018. The album collects four of Vasks’ vocal symphonic works, all with a spiritual nature, and, in the hands of such a talented group of performers, confirms again Vasks’ stature as a leading composer internationally.

The album includes both recently composed works, as well as earlier compositions, such as ‘Lūgšana mātei’ (Prayer for a Mother), based on a poem by Imants Ziedonis, which was composed in 1978. As it was composed during the Soviet occupation, sacred elements were forbidden in music, but Ziedonis’ text (sung by soprano Laura Teivāne), is still full of spirituality, with its repeated calls for “miers” (peace). Vasks’ earliest works are often harsh and discordant, and ‘Lūgšana mātei’ is no exception, with jarring and sudden percussion and bursts of sound and brief moments of choir singing. This is perhaps an unexpected musical approach for a prayer, but perhaps also considering that this was written during the Soviet occupation, messages of spirituality (or of discontent) had to be presented in, at best, oblique ways. From its quiet, mournful introduction, to Teivāne’s rich and resonant solo performance, this ode to mothers is memorable and moving.

A more recent work is ‘Laudate Dominum’ from 2016. The Latin text – Vasks only uses the words ‘Laudate Dominum. Alelulia.’ in the composition – provides the foundation for this powerful and expansive work. The gradually swelling orchestral introduction suddenly stops for the quiet entrance of the choir, providing a brief, almost Baroque interlude between the orchestral sections. Though filled with dramatic tension, the work closes on a hopeful, joyful note.

The centerpiece of this collection is the five moment ‘Mesa’ (or ‘Mass’) from 2005. The opening ‘Kyrie’ section is always in motion, with the choir melodies rising and falling with the text about begging for mercy from the Lord. The majestic ‘Gloria’ and the celebratory ‘Sanctus’ follow. The quieter and more tender ‘Agnus Dei’ concludes the work, and the delicate strings, along with the nuanced choir singing, completes this spiritual musical journey.

The album concludes with the brief but resplendent ‘Lūgšana Latvijai’ (Prayer for Latvia). As befitting its ceremonial nature, the brass instruments of the symphonic band Rīga give it a rich texture, and the text by poet Velta Toma, though laconic, offers an expansive prayer for Latvia and Latvians throughout the world in just a few words. It comes to a jubilant conclusion, with the choir Latvija, conducted by Sirmais, bringing the necessary gravity and vocal richness to make for a moving performance.

As with many of the Skani releases, the CD packaging includes an extensive interview with composer Vasks where he shares many details of the composition process and the history behind some of these works. The booklet text is in both English and Latvian.

As a present for Latvia on its 100th birthday, Lūgšana will have few equals. The immense compositional talent of Pēteris Vasks in the hands of exceptional musicians like the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, the symphonic band Rīga, the State Choir Latvija, all conducted by preeminent conductor Māris Sirmais, provides for a memorable combination. The richness and depth of Vasks’ works are vividly presented in this collection of symphonic choral works.

For further information, please visit the Skani website.

Pēteris Vasks – Lūgšana

Latvian State Choir Latvija, conductor Māris Sirmais

LMIC/SKANI 070, 2018

Track listing:

  1. Lūgšana mātei
  2. Laudate Dominum

Missa

  • I. Kyrie
  • II. Gloria
  • III. Sanctus
  • IV. Benedictus
  • V. Agnus Dei
  • Lūgšana Latvijai

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.

Namejs Kalniņš creates rich palette of mystical sounds on the kokle

The kokle, a Latvian stringed instrument, has long been a symbol of Latvian culture and history. Though perhaps a comparatively simple instrument, its distinct sound is irrevocably associated with Latvian folklore, and the instrument is even a part of Latvian mythology. Just one example of the supernatural nature of the kokle can be found in Jānis Rainis’ play Spēlēju, dancoju – musician Tots brings his kokle along when he travels to the land of the dead to rescue Lelde, who had been attacked by evil spirits.

Though some might consider the instrument archaic, or perhaps quaint, interest in kokle performance remains high throughout Latvia, and many young musicians are drawn to the instrument both for its sound, as well as its Latvian symbolism. One such musician is Namejs Kalniņš, a young kokle player who, at the age of 15, released his first album – Laika gaitā – in 2018.

Kalniņš began playing the instrument at the age of ten, when his father, in the process of making a kokle, perhaps casually asked his son if he wanted to play the instrument. Kalniņš quickly answered yes, and, since then, has immersed himself in the sound and performance of this instrument.

Almost the entire record is just Kalniņš performing his own instrumental compositions on the kokle. As it is just the sound of the kokle, the works have a timeless quality about them, that they still sound ancient, even though they are new. It is also telling that many of the compositions have bucolic or pastoral titles, such as the lively ‘Pavasara lietutiņš’, or the undulating ‘Pļava’, indicating the link between the kokle and Latvian nature.

The more mystical elements of the kokle appear in songs like ‘Maldugunis’, whose rhythmic pulsations give the impression of a song of conjuring, or ‘Veļu laikā’, where Kalniņš is joined by Viesturs Āboltiņš on the stabule, or reed pipe, and the two create atmospheric musical imagery of the time of the spirits.

One of the few compositions with modern elements is the title track ‘Laika gaitā’, where Aigars Kalniņš provides a distorted electric guitar accompaniment. The harsh sound of the guitar is slightly out of place with the rest of the sound of the record, but it does serve to show that the sound of the kokle can still effectively blend together with more modern instruments.

At just over half an hour of music, Namejs Kalniņš’ album Laika gaitā leaves listeners wanting more. Kalniņš adeptly brings forth the many facets and aspects of kokle performance, both the mystical and elemental tones of the instrument, creating a rich palette with this Latvian instrument. As Kalniņš himself notes, this is just the beginning of his musical journey, but it is an auspicious debut, and one looks forward to hearing more of his compositions.

For further information, please visit Namejs Kalniņš Facebook page.

Laika gaitā

Namejs Kalniņš

Lauska, CD086, 2018

Track listing:

  1. Pavasara lietutiņš
  2. Pļavā
  3. Kad saulīte norietēja
  4. Amata – video
  5. Maldugunis
  6. Piparu polka
  7. Rasas miega dziesmiņa
  8. Bišu dancis
  9. Putenis
  10. Vakara dancis
  11. Veļu laiks
  12. Laika gaitā
  13. Pērkons nāk
  14. Mājup

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.

Young Latvian composer Jančevskis’ new album features his choir music

Young Latvian composer Jēkabs Jančevskis has, in a few short years, become one of Latvia’s premiere and in-demand composers. His compositional skill, particularly in the field of choir music, has brought him international recognition, and his choir music works are performed by choirs all around the world. With his keen sense of melody and harmony, as well as skill with drama and tension, Jančevskis has brought forth a number of engrossing and captivating choir works.

Recognizing Jančevskis’ already notable contribution to the field of Latvian choir music, the Mixed Choir of Riga Cathedral Choir School and conductor Jurģis Cābulis recorded the first album of purely Jančevskis’ choir works. Released in 2020, the album is entitled Aeternum and highlights the many facets to Jēkabs Jančevskis’ choir music.

Though many of the works on the album are of a dramatic nature, perhaps the most cinematic and striking work is ‘Atsalums’, a work based on Latvian folk songs. ‘Atsalums’ (translated as ‘Coldness’) begins with a quiet vocalize that builds to a crescendo with the addition of a note from each voice group. The text is about a young girl who wishes to give herself to a foreign man, only to become disillusioned and realize that her heart belongs to Latvia. The song makes a number of dramatic shifts, from the whispered exhortation for the girl not to give herself to foreigners, to the despondent song of the girl herself (performed resonantly by Katrīna Paula Felsberga), to the mournful harmonies of the men’s choir. The performance concludes with a thunderous full throated affirmation of the beauty of the song of the girl’s countrymen – ‘tā dziesmiņa man skanēja, ko dziedāja bālēliņi’ (the song that my brothers sang resounded) and turning away from foreign attractions – ‘ko dziedāja sveši ļaudis, to saminu kājiņām’ (what the foreigners sang, I trampled). This very theatrical performance with its range of emotions and moods is presented vividly by Cābulis and the choir.

The most tragic event in recent Latvian history was the collapse of the roof of the Maxima supermarket in the Zolitūde area of Rīga in 2013, which took the lives of 54 people. As a tribute to those that lost their lives that day, Jančevskis composed ‘Ar zvaigžņu kluso gaismu’ (or ‘Silent Starlight’), from a poem by Ojārs Vācietis. Particularly striking is the solo kokle performance by Ansis Jansons. According to the album notes, the Latvian kokle, according to mythology, is built from wood that contains the soul of a departed person. Along with the forlorn singing of the men’s choir, the text ‘Tu mani, mīļā, vairs neredzēsi’ (You will not ever see me, darling), the performance is a heartbreaking tribute to those that perished. The sound of the kokle might even make some think of the ring of a mobile phone that goes unanswered…

Though most prayers are quiet and reflective, the prayer contained in Jančevskis’ ‘Mater Amabilis’ is a complex and moody work, that even seems to be full of anger at times. Beginning quietly, the work builds tension, and rises to an almost furious climax, less of a prayer but almost a demand – ‘ora pro nobis’ (pray for us). The almost anguished singing then gives way to a calmer, but still uneasy peace at the conclusion. The choir carries us through this storm of emotions with their gripping and riveting performance.

Though about suffering, the work ‘The Button’ is about enduring unspeakable hardship and surviving. Latvian poet Knuts Skujenieks suffered greatly at the hands of the Soviet authorities, and endured many years in a Soviet concentration camp, having only the shirt on his back to remind him of Latvia, and the shirt had a button sewed onto it by his wife, inspiring this poem. The choir, aided by saxophone ensemble and organ, find these glimmers of hope when all seems lost. Skujenieks’ poem (the text is sung in English), speaks of the love and devotion to his wife – ‘when the burden’s too heavy to bear, I make sure the button’s still on – the one that you stitched there.’

The CD booklet provides all the texts for the works, as well as detailed notes on each work and what inspired them. The Hyperion record label has long supported Latvian artists and composers, and this is another excellent entry in their catalogue.

Aeternum reveals the many talents of composer Jēkabs Jančevskis, and show why he has quickly become a notable and respected artist. Full of spiritual truth, at times deeply personal and introspective, overflowing with emotion at other times, his works are moving and memorable. Performed expressively and precisely by the talented and confident Riga Cathedral Choir School Mixed Choir and conductor Jurģis Cābulis, Aeternum is even more impressive considering that this is just the beginning of Jančevskis’ compositional career. One looks forward to hearing much more in the coming years.

For further information, please visit Jēkabs Jančevskis’ website, the Riga Cathedral Choir School Mixed Choir’s Facebook page, as well as the Hyperion Records website.

Jēkabs Jančevskis – Aeternum

Mixed Choir of Riga Cathedral Choir School

Hyperion Records, CDA68328, 2020

Track listing:

  1. Odpływ
  2. Atsalums
  3. Mater amabilis
  4. Aeternum
  5. O lux beata Trinitas
  6. When
  7. Ar zvaigžņu kluso gaismu
  8. The button

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.