A particularly notable collaboration recently in Latvian classical music is composer Gabriel Jackson working with the State Choir Latvija, conducted by Māris Sirmais.
Working together, the artists have released the CD A ship with unfurled sails, featuring the choral music of Jackson, and, among the ten works on the CD, six are first recordings.
According to the State Choir Latvija website, Jackson, a leading British composer of sacred choral music, began his collaboration with choir in 2007, when the choir premiered a number of his works. Jackson has also been interested in Baltic choir traditions, so it would seem natural that the choir and Jackson would have a successful cooperation. Jackson has, on a number of occasions, been awarded the British Composer Award for his choral works. A ship with unfurled sails, recorded in 2010 at the St. John’s Church in Rīga, is a testament not just to Jackson’s choral composition prowess, but also the State Choir Latvija’s place among the best choirs in the world.
Though most of the compositions on the CD are of a sacred nature, there are some secular works as well, such as ‘The Voice of the Bard’ by famed British poet William Blake. Blake’s poems are often full of vivid imagery and mysticism, and ‘The Voice of the Bard’ is no exception. Gabriel’s music begins with a tense, anxious introduction, repeating the words ‘hear’ and ‘voice’ a number of times in a unison melody. The titular Bard, who may very well be Blake himself, expressed dramatically through the voices of the male singers, calls on the Earth to return, and ‘Arise from out of the dewy grass’. This is then followed by the somber lyrics ‘night is worn, and the morn rises from the slumberous mass’, which is accented by the soaring soprano solo of Inese Romancāne.
‘Now I have known, O Lord’, based upon the poetry by Al-Junaid (also known as Junayd of Baghdad) is a calm, reflective work that is full of reverence and spirit. Al-Junaid was a Persian Muslim mystic of the 9th century. As the work builds to its culmination, Al-Junaid’s revelation is expressed as a joyous celebration, particularly the final lines of the text, ‘In wondrous and ecstatic Grace I feel Thee touch my inmost ground’. The choir masterfully brings forth the necessary gravity and veneration to the music and the words, making this spiritually deep work particularly memorable.
Jackson’s ‘Missa Triueriensis’, composed in 2005, based upon Latin mass texts, and consisting of five parts – ‘Kyrie’, ‘Gloria’, ‘Sanctus and Benedictus’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ is also a very . ‘Kyrie’ begins with the women’s voices singing ‘Kyrie eleison’ (Lord, have mercy), a somber beginning that continues with the altos, tenors and basses when singing ‘Christe eleison’ (Christ, have mercy), with the full choir culminating in the final ‘Kyrie eleison’. In contrast, the ‘Gloria’ section begins with a dramatically expressive ‘Gloria in excelcis Deo’, and then continues in a quieter and melodic fashion. The ‘Sanctus’ section’s beginning is meditative, then punctuated by some louder moments, and concludes with the expressive and memorable solo by soprano Nora Vītiņa, singing ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini’ (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord).
Joining the choir for the final work on the CD, ‘Ave regina caelorum’ is Latvian guitarist Kaspars Zemītis, whose guitar work in the song gives the composition a rather dramatic sense of contrast. The electrical guitar, almost like a rock solo, initially seems discordant with the sacred vocal performance, but over the course of the work’s twelve and a half minute duration, perhaps a bit surprisingly, blends in rather seamlessly with the singers and gives the work a much broader palette of colors than it might otherwise have had. Particularly memorable is the interplay of the guitar with the soprano solo by Inese Romancāne. Zemītis, with a solo that reminds one more of the guitar pyrotechnics of musicians like Jimi Hendrix or Edward Van Halen, gives the ‘Gaude virgo gloriosa’ section an almost ethereal quality, a kind of rapturous illumination. Jackson, unafraid to mix styles that might seem contradictory, leads the listener through a journey full of highs and lows.
The extensive CD booklet features texts and English translations for all the songs, as well as detailed notes on each work and biographies of the choir, conductor Māris Sirmais and guitarist Kaspars Zemītis.
The State Choir Latvija continues to hit new highs with each passing year, thanks to not just the immense talents of each singer, but the visionary conducting of Māris Sirmais. Unafraid to be enclosed by musical boundaries, the choir has formed a memorable bond with composer Gabriel Jackson on A ship with unfurled sails, a collection of performances that will entrance and enlighten listeners. This singular release confirms, yet again, the talents of the composer and the choir, and is a worthy entrant in the field of modern choir music.
A Ship with Unfurled Sails
The State Choir Latvija, conductor Māris Sirmais
UK: Hyperion, 2013
1. The Voice of the Bard
2. Now I have known, O Lord
3. O Doctor optime
6. Sanctus and Benedictus
7. Agnus Dei
8. Thomas, Jewel of Canterbury
9. Sanctum est verum lumen
10. Angeli, archangeli
11. A ship with unfurled sails
12. Aeterna caeli Gloria
13. Ave regina caelorum
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