Latvian Radio Choir records Jānis Ivanovs’ Vocalises

Among the many benefits and advantages of having a national record company (for example Skani in Latvia), is that many composers and ensembles can be recorded and spotlighted, and comparatively rarely heard works and lesser-known aspects of a composer’s oeuvre can be brought to light.

Latvian composer Jānis Ivanovs is well known for his symphonic works, particularly his twenty completed symphonies. However, perhaps less well known is Ivanovs’ contribution to choir music. Interestingly, Ivanovs’ comparatively small contribution is only vocalises – songs with no words. Recognizing the historical and creative value of these works, Skani released a recording of all of them in 2022. Simply entitled Jānis Ivanovs – Vocalises, the works were recorded by the distinguished Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava.

Ivanovs began work on the vocalises in the 1960s and worked on them until his death in 1983. This collection contains all of them, as well as three newer editions (arrangements updated by composer Imants Zemzaris).

With no text to go by, the listener has only the title of the work to provide information, but Ivanovs skillfully creates atmospheric, picturesque musical visions with just the wordless voices of the choir. Many of the works have themes of nature, such as the mysterious, almost ghostly ‘Migla’ (Fog), where the female voices create an uneasy, eerie atmosphere, almost like voices that are lost in the fog calling out.

A similar melancholic mood is generated in ‘Lietainā dienā’ (On a Rainy Day), where the soaring female voices are balanced with the harsher, almost jittery voices of the male singers. The dreamily flowing ‘Gubu mākoņi’ (Cumulus Clouds) does conjure up imagines of clouds slowly making their way across the sky, but with a seeming tinge of sadness for the clouds’ departure. The singers of the Latvian Radio choir effectively create these natural landscapes with their expressive vocals.

The appropriately titled ‘Zīmējums’ (Illustration) shows Ivanovs adding layers of voices, like colors, to make a vivid picture or portrait, while the mournful ‘Eleģija’ (Elegy) begins somberly and quietly, with a gentle melody that rises and falls, all the time growing in intensity.

The CD booklet also includes an essay about these vocalises by composer Imants Zemzaris, which adds interesting details about these compositions – for example, Ivanovs often uses chromatic elements in his music, as well as styles influenced by Russian liturgical music. This would likely be because during World War I, as a refugee, he fled to Russia, where, as a young boy, he sang in church choirs. Zemzaris also notes the themes of nature woven throughout these compositions were likely inspired by childhood memories, as well as “scenes and landscapes of rural Latgale and Vidzeme.”

At times dreamy and atmospheric, at other times harsh and dissonant, and often hauntingly beautiful, Jānis Ivanovs’ Vocalises exhibits a broad and impressive range of what can be achieved with wordless vocals. Ivanovs’ compositions are enhanced by the vivid voices and performances of the Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava, and, thanks to the efforts of the Skani record label, we are able to enjoy this lesser known area of Ivanovs’ musical offering.

For further information, please visit the Skani website and the Latvian Radio Choir website.

Jānis Ivanovs – Vocalises

Latvian Radio Choir, conductor Sigvards Kļava

LMIC/SKANi 144, 2022

Track listing:

1. Dzimtenes ainava

2. Rudens dziesma

3. Prelūdija

4. Gubu mākoņi

5. Zīmējums (Imants Zemzaris ed.)

6. Elēģija

7. Ziemas rīts

8. Jūsma

9. Lietainā dienā

10. Varoņu piemiņai

11. Migla

12. I Prelūdija

13. II Fūga

14. Zīmējums

15. Gubu mākoņi (Imants Zemzaris ed.)

16. Gājputni

17. Migla

18. Cantus Monodicus. Gloria

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.

Uģis Prauliņš explores sounds of Renaissance era with ancient music ensemble Ars Antiqua Riga

Latvian composer Uģis Prauliņš has long been known for his diverse and striking compositions, which often combine both modern and ancient elements, such as Renaissance and Gregorian styles. One of his best-known works, the oratorio Odi et Amo, a recording of which was released in 1999, featured the Riga Cathedral Boys’ Choir alongside synthesizers and electric guitars.

Prauliņš continues to explore the sounds and styles of different eras, combining them in new and intriguing way. A more recent composition, the Mass and Interludes L’homme armé, was recorded by the ancient music ensemble Ars Antiqua Riga (a vocal ensemble with five members, including artistic director Pēteris Vaickovskis), and was released by the Latvian national record company Skani in 2022.

The work, which combines elements of the traditional Christian mass, as well as songs and texts about war and peace, was partially inspired by the French knight’s song L’homme armé, and also grew from a collaboration between Prauliņš and Vaickovskis, who invited the composer to write interludes on Franco-Flemish Renaissance era composer Johannes Ockeghem’s Mass L’homme armé.

L’homme armé uses less of the modern elements than Odi et Amo did, though the composer himself does perform the synthesizer on some of the tracks, such as the subdued and dreamy introduction ‘Introit’. Though the text is about how the “armed man should be feared”, the work has a meditative nature, in contrast to the text about battle.

Prauliņš offers an authentic Gregorian style interpretation of the traditional ‘Kyrie’ section of the Mass, a work of sublime beauty, with the individual voices of the members of Ars Antiqua Riga rising and falling in harmony with each other, supplemented by the sounds of the sackbut (an ancient version of the trombone) performed by Vairis Nartišs and Kaspars Majors.

The album was recorded at St. John’s Church in Riga, and one of the many benefits of the recording location is that the church organ, here played by Jānis Pelše, can be used throughout the performances, both with the singers, as well as individual instrumental works like ‘Manzarek M. Monk’ and ‘Trouvére’.

Though most of the work is meditative and contemplative, there are lively and powerful moments, such as the almost bellicose ‘Perc. Org. Shuffle’, which brings forth the battle elements of the text. The voices of Ars Antiqua Riga also give Prauliņš’ ‘Gloria’ a triumphant air, with their resounding performance of the text ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, which then leads to the celebratory ‘Hosanna in Excelsis’ and its repeated, exultant ‘Hallelujah’.

There are also moments of tension, particularly in the almost abrasive ‘Dies irae’, where Prauliņš’ music accentuates the fear and terror in the text, and this is further enhanced by the dramatic and energetic organ performance by Pelše, along with the ominous sounds of the sackbuts.

Though firmly rooted in the Renaissance era, Uģis Prauliņš L’homme armé adds a few modern touches to make for an immersive and atmospheric listen. Aided by the immense vocal talents of Ars Antiqua Riga and their artistic director Pēteris Vaickovskis, along with skilled organist Jānis Pelše and sackbut players Vairis Nartišs and Kaspars Majors, the work proves to be an inspiring and moving prayer for peace.

For further information, please visit the Skani website.

Uģis Prauliņš. L’homme armé

Ars Antiqua Riga

LMIC/SKANi 142, 2022

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.

Opera Xeniae by Juris Ābols recorded by Latvian Radio Choir

Latvia, a land of musicians and composers, has provided the world with many distinctive and unusual compositions and performances – from harsh and unforgiving to beautiful and angelic, the spectrum continues to broaden and become even more panoramic with each passing year. One composer that consistently remained outside this spectrum is the late Juris Ābols, as his works defy classification or even description. A self-proclaimed ‘Dadaist’, Ābols followed no rules, broke just about every convention, and made little effort to make his compositions understandable, even decipherable.

However, this stubbornness is what makes Ābols’ works so unique, even memorable. Ābols, who passed away in 2020, had a long and fruitful working relationship with the Latvian Radio Choir, who recorded many of his works, including his choral cycle (or, in Ābols’ description, ‘cumulative cantata’) ‘Jautrā sabiedrība’, released in 2009. As a tribute to the late composer, in 2022, the Latvian national record label Skani released the Latvian Radio Choir’s recording of what is perhaps Ābols’ magnum opus – the opera Xeniae.

The booklet notes that the opera has ‘a libretto based on motifs in the work of Martial and Aristophanes’, and Latvian Radio Choir conductor Sigvards Kļava offers one of Ābols’ abstract explanations – “the place and existential struggle of the creative person in today’s global and cosmic world”. The CD booklet contains a discussion of the work and the composer between Kļava and musicologist Orests Silabriedis, where both gamely try to make sense of it all. It is telling that Kļava notes that when Ābols presented some of the score to him, Kļava wasn’t sure which way to turn the score, was it upside down or right-side up!

The work itself is a bewildering mishmash of styles, sounds and ideas. It is a difficult listen, since Ābols seems to intentionally not want to develop any musical theme before moving on to a different theme in a different style. Sacred music gives way to Balkan elements which transform into jazz and then to Mongolian throat singing, all in the space of minutes. Spoken word alternates with singing. The libretto is included in the CD booklet, but that offers little help in understanding the ‘story’ (if there even is one).

Listeners may find this a challenging listen, as the rapid tonal and style shifts are disconcerting, even disorienting. It will also be up to the listener to interpret this – is there a method to this madness or is it just random musical ideas stitched together. But perhaps that is the charm of this work, that it is really up to each individual listener to find meaning – or accept that there is no meaning. The Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava, however, deserve praise for throwing themselves headlong into this recording and performance, and treating the often absurd material with a professional approach, even a sense of reverence for the creative vision of Juris Ābols, even as the work occasionally wanders into profane territory (texts about body parts and functions, among other elements). There are many moments of beauty, even whimsy, throughout the opera, but one does wish that Ābols had developed some of the musical ideas more thoroughly before moving onto the next idea.

The CD booklet also includes a touching epitaph to Juris Ābols by Sigvards Kļava, and Kļava describes many of the charming (and occasionally highly bizarre) quirks of the composer, such as Ābols’ tendency to smear himself in turpentine when he got sick, or about one of Ābols’ compositions about globalization (a favorite theme of the composer), but much of the text was about bacteria.

Xenia is occasionally bewildering, occasionally fascinating, due to its incongruous mixture of styles, but never dull, thanks to the spirited performance by the Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava. Though one gets the sense the performers were not quite sure of what they were singing, they give it their all, and the performances are vivacious and often humorous. Composer Juris Ābols’ creative skills are on full display here, and one has to admire the composer for blithely ignoring all compositional rules and traditions to create a singular work like Xenia.

Juris Ābols: Opera Xeniae

Latvian Radio Choir, conductor Sigvards Kļava

Skani LMIC 140, 2022

For further information, please visit the Latvian Radio Choir website and the Skani website.

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.