Friday 7 May 2021

Celebrating Latvia's centenary with music: the State Choir "Latvija" records 16 new works from a project creating a grand total of 77 new pieces by Latvian composers

Aeternum; State Choir "Latvija", Māris Sirmais; SKANI
; State Choir "Latvija", Māris Sirmais; SKANI

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Fourteen new pieces by contemporary Latvian composers created as part of a larger project for a new body of music for professional and amateur choirs to celebrate Latvia's centenary

Latvia celebrated its centenary on 18 November 2018. To mark the celebrations the State Choir "Latvija" and its artistic director Māris Sirmais brought to conclusion a three-year project where they premiered a repertoire of new songs, with seventy-seven composers in all writing for the choir, with the intention of creating a body of works suitable for both professional and amateur choirs. The choir premiered these songs at a series of concerts which culminated in concert on 4 May 2018 when the choir was joined by other Latvian ensembles, both professional an amateur, to perform 14 of the songs.

This new disc, Aeternum, from SKANI, a division of the Latvian Music Information Centre, presents sixteen of the new songs performed by the State Choir "Latvija" and Māris Sirmais, with works by Ēriks Ešenvalds, Irīna Mihailovska, Valts Pūce, Andris Dzenītis, Pēteris Vasks, Rihards Zaļupe, Uldis Marhilēvičs, Vilnis Šmīdbergs, Maija Einfelde, Andris Kontauts, Anna Ķirse, Jānis Aišpurs, Ansis Sauka, Juris Kulakovs, Raimonds Tiguls and Jēkabs Jančevskis.

The styles of the composers involved is very wide with backgrounds from classical, folk, pop, rock, underground and electronic music. Each composer took as their theme one of five elements, fire, water, earth, sky, love, though some hew closer to their chosen theme than others. The age range of the composers is wide as well, on this disc we have birth dates from 1939 (Maija Einfelde) to 1992 (Jēkabs Jančevskis), and the two best known names for those outside Lativa are probably Ēriks Ešenvalds and Pēteris Vasks.

State Choir "Latvija" and Māris Sirmais
State Choir "Latvija" and Māris Sirmais

When listening to this music, we should perhaps remember the intention of the project.

This is music written to be sung by professionals and amateurs. A number of the pieces on the disc sound tricky indeed, with one of two seeming to have that knack of creating music which is difficult to sing but profoundly satisfying to do so when you get it right! This means that the music is tonal, though different composers adhere to different ideas of what tonality is. There is also an aura of gentle melancholy hanging over the music; for all the celebratory nature of the project, few works on the disc are of the uncomplicated, joyful celebratory nature. Perhaps some of this is a reflection of Latvian folk traditions, because many of the works seem to evoke what little I know Latvian folk music. 

The disc opens with Ēriks Ešenvalds' Rasa (The Dew) which very much sets the tone, combining gentle melancholy with a memorable tune. The final work on the disc is by the youngest composer, Jēkabs Jančevskis. His Aeternum has an elegiac feel to is, but with striking multi-voiced textures and some wonderful high sopranos, so that the result is rather memorable. Pēteris Vasks's piece  Mūsu kalni (Our Mountains) is gentle, almost prayerful and homophonic with a slow build to it.

Other pieces in the recital which caught my ear include Andris Dzenītis No debesīm (From the Sky) with its striking textures created from multiple voices, mutterings and note clusters, and Rihards Zaļupe's Sauciens vējā (A Call in the Wind), which mixes catchy rhythms with striking textures, whilst Anna Ķirse's Bieza migla zemi sedza (A Thick Fog Covered the Earth) is set in a distinctive harmonic sound-world combining chant-like elements with eerie high lines for the sopranos, and Juris Kulakovs (who founded the legendary Lativan rock group Perkons) creates lovely transparent vocal textures in Mežā. Nakts... / In the Forest. Night....

What impresses overall with this group of works is not so much the variety, but the sophisticated way the different composers have handled their vocal forces. These pieces will present a variety of satisfying challenges to performers, and as listeners we can enjoy the sheer diversity of vocal textures which this disc presents.

The performances are uniformly excellent, and the choir seems to be very much in sympathy with the different styles and genres of the music. Nothing feels forced, and overall you cannot but admire the stunning vocal control and beauty of sound.

Māris Sirmais said of the project, “The works composed in this initiative are dedicated to the best amateur choirs in Latvia and will introduce the world to the high quality of Latvian music. The goal was to create real and lasting spiritual values that will live on long after our country’s centenary. We can take pride in the fact that such a relatively small nation has not only so many composers creating such high-calibre music, but also choirs that can perform it at such a high level.”  Quite so.

For those interested in pursuing the music further, Musica Baltica has published a volume containing 19 of the 77 celebratory pieces, further information from the Musica Baltica website.

1. Ēriks Ešenvalds (born 1977) - Rasa / The Dew, Rasa Maija Armale   [4:54]
2. Irīna Mihailovska (born 1988)- Uguns rituāls / Fire Ritual, Latvian folk song text   [2:56]
3. Valts Pūce (born 1962) - Dziesmu svētkos / At the Song Festival, Alfrēds Krūklis   [4:58]
4. Andris Dzenītis (born 1978) - No debesīm / From the Sky, Gundega Šmite   [5:11]
5. Pēteris Vasks (born 1946) - Mūsu kalni / Our Mountains, Knuts Skujenieks   [3:38]
6. Rihards Zaļupe (born 1983) - Sauciens vējā / A Call in the Wind, Sondra Zaļupe   [4:38]
7. Uldis Marhilēvičs (born 1957) - Mēs esam / We Are, arr. Edgars Linde, Guntars Račs   [5:01]
8. Vilnis Šmīdbergs (born 1944) - Tā lapa, tā lapa, kas lejup krīt / The Leaf That Falls, Imants Ziedonis   [4:40]
9. Maija Einfelde (born 1939) - Krāsas / Colours, Rainis   [4:00]
10. Andris Kontauts (born 1974) - Jūras māte, Jūras māte, valdi savas kalponītes / Mother of the Sea, Control Your Servants, Latvian folk song text   [5:50]
11. Anna Ķirse (born 1988) - Bieza migla zemi sedza / A Thick Fog Covered the Earth, Latvian folk song text   [4:30]
12. Jānis Aišpurs (born 1980) - Piesaukšana / Invocation, Ojārs Vācietis   [4:03]
13. Ansis Sauka (born 1963) - Ar zvaigžņu kluso gaismu… / With the Quiet Light of the Stars, Ojārs Vācietis   [3:58]
14. Juris Kulakovs (born 1958) - Mežā. Nakts... / In the Forest. Night..., Jānis Audzespiedurs   [4:05]
15. Raimonds Tiguls (born 1972) - Griezes dziesma / The Corncrake’s Song, Dzintars Sodums   [5:12]
16. Jēkabs Jančevskis (born 1992) - Aeternum, Pēters Brūveris   [4:51]
State Choir "Latvija"
Māris Sirmais (conductor)
Recorded at St John's Church, RIGA, 2020
SKANI LMIC/SKANI 089 1CD [68:27]

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