Chants from various European cities in Schola Cantorum Riga’s new album

The Latvian Gregorian and Medieval music ensemble Schola Cantorum Riga, directed by Guntars Prānis, have, throughout their more than two decades of performing, established themselves as exceptional interpreters of early music. On their most recent album – 2020’s Vox Clara, the group presented recordings of chants from multiple European cities – not just Riga, but from Hamburg, Lund, Limoges, among others, and many of the texts have Christmas themes.

Many of the songs are performed with musical accompaniment, such as ‘Res est admirabilis’ from Limoges, which is introduced by a steady drumbeat provided by percussionist Ansis Klucis, as well as Ieva Nīmane playing the recorder, and Prānis performing the hurdy gurdy (an ancient, hand cranked string instrument). The accompaniment gives the performance a dance-like atmosphere and is a celebratory beginning to the album.

Nīmane also provides a kokle accompaniment for the performance of ‘Miserere mei’, based on text from Psalm 51. This prayer for mercy, combined with the ethereal sound of the kokle, creates a deeply spiritual atmosphere, as the vocals alternate between the unison Gregorian and the Falsobordone harmonies.

Mythological creatures appear in the text of ‘Unicornis captivatur’, from the Codex Engelberg. The solemn, occasionally even violent, tale of captured unicorns and hydras consuming crocodiles, is punctuated by a steady drum, like a heartbeat, creating a performance rich with mythical and fantastic imagery.

The soaring countertenor of Rūdolfs Bērtiņš imbues ‘Respondemos’, a Sephardic song from Spain, with deep reverence, and provides a gracefully flowing performance, while soloist Jānis Kurševs, in ‘Gaude Maria’, a song of rejoicing, provides quiet, yet powerful vocals.

‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’, an antiphon from Cambrai, France, is presented both in Latin and archaic Latvian. As Prānis notes in his introduction to the CD, in the Late Medieval period, the local language would often appear alongside the original Latin, and one of the goals of this recording is to present what these Medieval chants and songs might have sounded like in Latvia centuries ago.

The CD liner notes also contain all the texts (in Latin, English and Latvian), and some very brief notes about the texts and where they originated. The booklet could have gone into more detail about the works, since some listeners may not be familiar with the sources – for example, what the ‘Missale Rigense’ was, or the ‘Codex Saint Martial de Limoges’.

Besides being a recording of the highest quality, with Schola Cantorum Riga displaying their singular talents in performing early vocal music, Vox Clara also provides for a fascinating historical journey through the music of Europe, creating an absorbing listening experience. The ensemble and leader Guntars Prānis vividly present songs that are both solemn as well as celebratory, performing both with beauty and vitality.

For more information, please visit the Schola Cantorum Riga website.

Vox Clara

Schola Cantorum Riga

LMIC/SKANI 085, 2020

Track listing:

  1. Res est admirabilis
  2. Vox clara
  3. Benedicamus
  4. Ingrediente Domino
  5. Kyrie eleison ymas
  6. Miserere mei
  7. Unicornis captivatur
  8. Uterus hodie
  9. Veni Sancte Spiritus
  10. Plangas cum lacrimis
  11. Quasi stella matutina
  12. Alleluya alto re di gloria
  13. Respondemos
  14. Gaude Maria

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.

Joyful songs by ensemble create historic Vidzeme tavern atmosphere

Among the many folklorists who went on ‘expeditions’ around Latvia to gather and write down local songs and dances (since many were passed down over generations orally), a slightly less familiar name is Voldemārs Stelbergs. Stelbergs travelled throughout the Vidzeme region of Latvia in the early 20th century and wrote down more than 1300 melodies and songs throughout his journeys.

Folklorist and musician Inese Roze, when researching music of her native Vidzeme, encountered the collection of Stelbergs’ notes in the Latvian folklore archive, and decided to bring together a number of musicians to record an album of songs and melodies from the Stelbergs collection. Along with the ensemble Drabešu muižas muzikanti, with support from the “KasTe” society (dedicated to traditional cultural initiatives), they released the album Kad mana sieva piedzērus’ in 2020.

Many of the songs collected by Stelbergs’ are dance songs or drinking songs as well as humorous and good-natured tunes to be enjoyed over a mug or two of beer. The ensemble also recorded the album using traditional instruments, to create an authentic re-creation of an evening in a tavern in Vidzeme in the first half of the 20th century.

There are a number of instrumentals, some with no name beyond ‘Polka Nr. 25’ or ‘Polka Nr. 49’, but the instrumentals are performed enthusiastically and energetically, appropriate for a boisterous evening of dancing, particularly the bouncy dance ‘Rucelis’.

Themes of life and death and suffering are humorously presented in ‘Dažs tēviņš šinī pasaulē’, about how some eat and drink well while others suffer and await death, and a note about how Heaven waits for some while Satan waits for others. Though these are seemingly weighty themes, the ensemble’s performance of the song is upbeat and lively.

The positivity that is woven throughout the album is evident in many of the songs, such as ‘Šai goda dienā’, a song of well-wishing. The singers wish not just happiness and health, but as the song progresses, it becomes more humorous with wishes like peas the size of apples, as well as beautifully curved cucumbers.

Many of the songs have little in the way of lyrics, just repeating a phrase a few times. For example, ‘Dziesma ar dziedāšanu’ (or ‘Kad mana sieva piedzērus’’), where a man sings multiple times about how, when his wife is drunk, he ties her up in a sack. Though certainly meant in a lighthearted and humorous way, a modern perspective on the song likely interprets this as misogynistic. It is also a curious artistic choice to give the album the title ‘When my Wife is Drunk’, an alternative title may have worked better.

The CD booklet has extensive notes on each song, including the lyrics and English translations, and notes on where and when the song was written down. There is also a detailed biography of Voldemārs Stelbergs and notes on his travels by musicologist Lauma Bērza.

On Kad mana sieva piedzērus’, Drabešu muižas muzikanti display the rich results of Voldemārs Stelbergs folklore expeditions, and the vivacious and exuberant performances reveal songs of joy and happiness. These songs may not be familiar to many listeners, but the ensemble, with their authentic and spirited performances, has done a commendable job of restoring these songs to the Latvian folklore repertoire.

For further information, please visit the Lauska Drabešu muižas muzikanti information page

Kad mana sieva piedzērus’

Drabešu muižas muzikanti

Biedrība “Tradicionālās kultūras iniciatīvu centrs “KasTe””, 2020

Track listing

  1. Es gāj’ pa puķu puķītēm
  2. Palkavnieka valsis
  3. Polka Nr. 25
  4. Polka Nr. 49
  5. Pasvilpo, vālodzīt
  6. Deja “Rucelis”
  7. Trīcēja, skanēja mežiņa malā
  8. Šai goda dienā
  9. Polka Nr. 23
  10. Grib tai glāzei diben’ redzēt
  11. Deja ar dziedāšanu / Kad mana sieva piedzērus’/
  12. Lecampolka
  13. Rātes stabs
  14. Vai dieniņ, kas par brīnumiem
  15. Reiz satik’ vienu meitiņu
  16. Rikšiem bērīt’ es palaidu

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.

LNSO, conductor Andris Poga pay tribute to composer Tālivaldis Ķeniņš

Canadian Latvian composer Tālivaldis Ķeniņš, who was born in 1919 and passed away in 2008, through his many decades of composition and work in the music field, is a towering figure in Latvian academic music. Throughout his long and storied career, Ķeniņš wove together many styles of music – conductor Andris Poga notes “touches of modernism, expressionism and also Jazz” can be heard in his music.

For all his renown, Ķeniņš and his works are comparatively less well known in Latvia, likely due to Ķeniņš spending the bulk of his life in Canada as an exiled Latvian during the Soviet occupation of Latvia. However, with the centenary of Ķeniņš birth in 2019, interest in his work was heightened, and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andris Poga performed and recorded several of his works. An album of three orchestral works – the Violin Concerto, the Concerto for Five Percussionists and Orchestra, and ‘Beatae voces tenebrae’ – was released in 2020.

The Violin Concerto, featuring soloist Eva Bindere, is a work of five movements (without any pauses between the movements) that is a near constant stream of musical activity. The almost frenetic work, which at a moment’s notice can go from a harsh sound to a lyrical melody, from a rapid, intense performance to a slower, methodical one, gives Bindere a showcase for her talents. The mournful, mysterious second movement is a highlight, as well as the final movement, much of which is Bindere performing solo. With her clear, lyrical tone, Bindere’s violin reveals the nuances and subtleness in Ķeniņš’ work, all the way to the dramatic and sudden conclusion.

The Concerto for Five Percussionists (on this recording they are Mikus Bāliņš, Elvijs Endelis, Elīna Endzele, Guntars Freibergs, and Ernests Mediņš – collectively the Perpetuum Ritmico ensemble) begins dramatically, almost ominously. An uneasy calm is present in the second movement, with the strings of the orchestra adding a dreamlike quality to the sound of the percussionists, which then transitions to the sharp, sudden sounds of the third movement. The percussionists, performing on a variety of percussive instruments, create a vivid sound palette throughout the work, culminating in the intense and thunderous concluding movement, with the percussion giving a slight military feel, with a sound almost like an alarm as the work concludes.

Ķeniņš rarely offered any programmatic notes for his works, simply entitling them ‘symphony’ or ‘concerto’ and letting the listeners decide for themselves what to think, but on the work ‘Beatae voces tenebrae’ Ķeniņš did offer some notes on the inspiration for it. Prior to the time of composition, the composer had lost two close friends, and the sorrow and anguish can be heard throughout the work. As the composer’s son, Juris Ķeniņš described it, the work is a “meditation about death and eternity”. From its reserved, somber beginning, to the funereal middle section, there are still elements of tenderness, as if remembering someone. The Orchestra, along with conductor Poga, bring forth the many emotions and moods of this layered work.

The CD booklet contains many fascinating notes about Ķeniņš’ life, how, prior to World War II, he studied in Paris, and, upon return to Latvia, was initially refused admission to the Latvian Conservatory by composer Jāzeps Vītols (who believed Ķeniņš wasn’t quite ready as a composer), but colleague, fellow composer Ādolfs Ābele, took on the responsibility to teach Ķeniņš. Ķeniņš returned to Paris as a refugee during World War II, and continued his education there, among his teachers was renowned French composer Olivier Messiaen. Ķeniņš later emigrated to Canada, where he became a professor at the University of Toronto.

Through his many decades of work, Tālivaldis Ķeniņš established himself as one of the premiere 20th century composers, and this collection of his orchestral works confirms his place as one of the most distinguished Latvian, as well as Canadian, composers. The Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andris Poga, as well as the soloists, provide vivid and dynamic performances, which are a tribute to this illustrious, venerable composer and his incomparable contribution to academic music.

For further information, please visit the Skani website and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra website.

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš

Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, conductor Andris Poga

LMIC/SKANI 088, 2020

Track listing

Violin Concerto (1974)

  1. Moderato con moto
  2. Piu lento
  3. Doppio movimento. Scherzoso
  4. Doppio piu lento
  5. Cadenza. Senza misura

Concerto for Five Percussionists and Orchestra

  • Vivo e marcato – Un poco meno mosso
  • Tranquillo
  • Molto animato
  • Lento
  • Coda. Presto
  1. Beatae voces tenebrae

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.