One of the most surprising developments in Latvian academic music in recent years was the departure of conductor Māris Sirmais from the youth choir Kamēr… in 2012. After leading the choir for more than 20 years, and bringing it worldwide renown, and spearheading such memorable projects as World Sun Songs and Mēness dziesmas, Sirmais handed the baton over to his young colleague, Jānis Liepiņš. Liepiņš then had the gargantuan task of not only maintaining the choir’s stellar reputation, but also continue to innovate and forge new paths in choir music as Sirmais had done.
Liepiņš’ and the choir’s major project in 2014 was Amber Songs, which thematically builds upon its predecessors – World Sun Songs (choir compositions by international composers inspired by the sun) and Mēness dziesmas (choir compositions by Latvian composers, inspired by the moon). The twist with Amber Songs is that this time, a group of prestigious composers, both Latvian and international, were given the task of composing new arrangements of Latvian folk songs. As the album Amber Songs reveals, this international approach to arrangement leads to a diverse collection of folk song arrangements – some staying true to the original version, some folk songs becoming almost unrecognizable. Composers from nations as diverse as Turkey, Israel, India and the United States, among many others, have added their spin on these ancient tunes.
One of the many reasons this is such an engaging collection is that most, if not all, the Latvian folk songs are among lesser known folk songs, which means that many listeners will not at all know what to expect from this collection.
A frequent collaborator with Latvian choirs (see the album A Ship with Unfurled Sails with the State Choir Latvija), British composer Gabriel Jackson has shown a particular affinity for Latvian culture and music. This collaboration continues with his arrangement of ‘Neviens putnis tā nepūta’, an untraditionally tender folk song about love. Combining birdsong with the sentimental text, the song flows to a concluding crescendo, as two lovers are sad to part.
Young Latvian composer Evija Skuķe, a previous collaborator with the choir on the Mēness dziesmas collection (the composition ‘Mēness vokalīze’), continues her fruitful work with Kamēr… with the arrangement of the Latgallian ‘Zvīdzi, zvīdzi’, a song about a young man who wants to escape war, yet almost all of his family is unwilling to help him, except for his bride, who sells her bridal crown to help him. Skuķe’s arrangement gives each family member – father, mother, brother, and sister their own unique voice and image, vividly telling the story through the voices of the choir.
The tragedy of ‘Vēja māte’, where a young fisherman does not survive a violent storm, is brought to life with aching sadness by Basque composer Xabier Sarasola. The young fisherman pleads desperately with the Wind Mother to control her servants, but to no avail. As the song reaches its sad conclusion, the arrangement, through the voices of the choir, echoes the tragic lament of the discovery of the lifeless fisherman.
Russian composer Vladimir Martynov, not content with arranging just one song, tackles a whole six songs, in the appropriately named ‘Sešas dziesmas’. The composer moves deftly from one melody to another, in the span of a few minutes covering topics of birth, weddings, midsummer, as well as other seasons. The rhythmic, almost chanting singing, with the repeated refrain of ‘Aizkryta sauleite jau aizalaida’ (The sun has set, it has gone down), leads to an almost trance-like effect, with the choir singers of Kamēr… conjuring a panorama of Latvian seasons and landscapes.
Amber Songs comes in a richly bound book, which includes extensive notes on the project, all song lyrics, as well as biographies of each composer in both Latvian and English.
Amber Songs, at once ancient and modern, is an engrossing collection, offering a diverse and multifaceted view of Latvian folksongs. Though some listeners may be disoriented by the modern arrangements (some of the arrangements are quite complex, at times even harsh), it remains a fulfilling international journey. Conductor Jānis Liepiņš is clearly at ease in the role of the conductor of the choir, and has quite nimbly and confidently stepped out of the shadow of former artistic director Māris Sirmais. With Amber Songs and its 17 unique pieces of amber, Liepiņš and the choir Kamēr… yet again show why they are considered one of the best amateur choirs in the world.
For more information, please visit www.kamer.lv
- Rotāšana – Vytautas Miškinis
- Bumburjānis bumburēja – Pēteris Plakidis
- Garā pupa – Jan Sandström
- Gaismeņa ausa – Nicholas Lens
- Zvīdzi, zvīdzi – Evija Skuķe
- Ar laiviņu ielaidosi- Hasan Uçarsu
- Neviens putnis tā nepūta – Gabriel Jackson
- Kaladū – Michael Ostrzyga
- Divi sirmi kumeliņi – Ethan Sperry
- Aiz Daugavas vara dārzs – Peeter Vähi
- Tolku bolss – Kasia Glowicka
- Malējiņa Dievu lūdza – Henrik Ødegaard
- Kālabadi galdiņam – Param Vir
- Vēja māte – Xabier Sarasola
- Aiz deviņi ezeriņi – Gilad Hochman
- Gula meitina – Franz Herzog
- Sešas dziesmas – Vladimir Martynov
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