Latvians call themselves a "singing people." Wherever Latvians gather, a choir is inevitably formed! While the musical ability of many amateur choirs is admirably high, elite and professional ensembles also have an important role in inspiring and performing more difficult and challenging music and presenting Latvian music internationally.
Prominent among these is the Latvian Radio Choir. Established in 1940, it was dubbed the "Teodors Kalniņš Choir" during the latter period of the Soviet occupation in honor of its founder, but since Latvia’s return to independence has again been known by its original name. A flexible ensemble ranging from five to 90 singers allows them to perform music of many styles and eras. The singers’ professional ability and the talented leadership of Sigvards Kļava have raised them to a remarkable level of virtuosity and skill. A prominent Latvian composer recently told me this is the only choir in Latvia currently capable of properly performing this composer’s very difficult vocal music.
The particular interest and value of this new recording, Latviešu mūzika Rīgā, is that it mostly features recent music the average listener wouldn’t usually seek out or encounter. Even "A Birch in Autumn," by the "old master" Jāzeps Vītols, is not among his most frequently performed works. An ethereal, subtle nature evocation, it’s beautifully rendered here with sensitive vocal blending by the Chamber Singers of the Latvian Radio Choir. Ably conducted by Kaspars Putniņš, this ensemble also performs two other works. Pēteris Plaķīdis’ brief setting of the traditional Latin text "Domine salvum fac populum" (Lord, Save Thy People) is propelled to its conclusion by an effective use of repeated figures. In Romualds Kalsons’ harmonically imaginative "In the Sounding Hill," the choir vividly portrays repeated echoes.
Artistic Director Sigvards Kļava leads the full choir in the rest of the program, most of which is also of a spiritual nature. For me, the most impressive discovery was Maija Einfelde’s "Psalm 15." This powerfully expressive setting subtly builds dense dissonances resolving in calmer, more peaceful passages. This is uncompromising, sincere music of harsh beauty. Juris Ābols offers an impassioned setting of "Ave Regina coelorum" (Hail, Queen of Heaven). The "Agnus Dei" from Artūrs Maskats’ "Mass" forms an emotional arch, from a peaceful beginning, building to a dramatic organ passage, then subsiding to a calm conclusion. Andris Dzenītis is the youngest composer represented here (born in 1978), in a lengthy, intense, often anguished setting of "Ave Maria."
St. Francis of Assisi’s writings inspired Pauls Dambis to compose his cycle, "Canti Francescani," from which two sections are heard. In "A Prayer," alternating soprano and baritone soloists’ chantlike passages elicit choral responses. Repeated cries of "psallite" are prominent in "A Song for Sister Death." Pēteris Vasks has come to be contemporary Latvian music’s best-known exponent internationally. The beauty and radiance of his "Dona nobis pacem" never fail to carry the listener along. Aivars Kalējs accompanies impeccably on the organ.
Two secular works fill out the program. Though Imants Kalniņš is known as "the people’s composer," his music never condescends. His special talent for making fresh and imaginative use of simple ideas is effectively heard in "Cinderella." Juris Karlsons’ brief "My Song" is a lovely, engaging piece, sounding "Latvian" (at least to another Latvian) without retreading old formulas.
Another interesting aspect of this release is that every composer’s music was recorded in a different venue in Rīga: churches, university and museum halls, and a recording studio. Not only do the locales sound acoustically splendid and well-suited to the music, but the engineering is remarkably consistent, so there is no jarring change from one acoustic environment to another. The artistically handsome accompanying booklet is filled with photographs of the various locales with interesting historical information. Notes are in Latvian and excellent English, though the latter is sometimes not idiomatic. One other minor caveat: Latin pronounciation is sometimes irritatingly "Latvianized."
This is a magnificent production worthy of the widest dissemination and exposure. Hats off to Kļava for his brilliant conducting and sensitive interpretations, and to the choir for their skill and artistry. Though much of this program is challenging and intense, requiring thoughtful listening with receptive ears and an open mind, it is definitely not a compilation of avant-garde gimmicks or polemics. Latvian composers are clearly aware of international musical trends and techniques in addition to local traditions and practices, and have transcended both to produce music of substance and variety, with both emotional and intellectual appeal.
(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on SVEIKS.com.)
Latviešu mūzika Rīgā
Latvijas Radio koris
Latvian Radio, 1999
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