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Vasks, Pärt, Bryars, Viļums, Ligeti, Ešenvalds : Latvian Radio Choir / Sigvards Kļava and Kaspars Putniņš (conductors), Ewenny Priory Church, Wales, 30.08.06 (GPu)

Arvo Pärt: Dopo la

Gavin Bryars: Glorious Hill

Mārtiņš Viļums; Le temps scintille

Pēteris Vasks: Window, from Three Poems by Czeslaw Miłosz

Pēteris Vasks: Mūsu māšu vārdi / Names of our Mothers (world premiere)

György Ligeti: Lux aeterna

Ēriks Ešenvalds: Legende de la femme enmurée

Pēteris Vasks: Māte saule / Mother sun 


Founded in 1969, under the directorship of composer John Metcalf the Vale of Glamorgan Festival has, since 1991, devoted itself to contemporary music. In recent years each festival has concentrated (though not exclusively) on the work of two or three composers. This year’s festival celebrates a number of birthdays – the seventieth of Steve Reich, the sixtieth of Pēteris Vasks and Metcalf himself. The programme includes a concert of music by all three of the birthday boys, plus Georges Lentz, given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, violist Philip Dukes, harpist Lucy Wakeford and Synergy Vocals. There's also a recital by the Smith Quartet and guitarist Craig Ogden, featuring work by Reich and Vasks, a programme of music by Lentz, Metcalf, Reich and Vasks by Lontano and two concerts by the Latvian Radio Choir, the first of which opened the festival.


Ewenny Priory Church is part of a twelfth-century priory, much of it ruined. The Norman church, still in use as a parish church, is surrounded by formidable defensive towers and walls of the same period. Though there are several quite large centres of population nearby, the priory’s location is surprisingly remote and secluded, approachable only by a single narrow lane. Inside the church’s walls a profound silence formed a wonderful backcloth for this recital of contemporary choral works, as did the recently installed glass and steel screen by Alexander Beleschenko, an empty cross in clouds of glory, peopled only by butterflies which are both symbols the Christian soul and allusions to a rare species found at Ewenny. The whole was a wonderful setting, and an eager audience was crammed into every available space in the church.


Though it has been in use for some 900 years, it is probably safe to say that Ewenny Priory has never heard a finer choir than the magnificent Latvian Radio Choir. The choir boasts (though their unassuming manner is a million miles away from any such action) a beautiful ensemble sound, perfect intonation, immense flexibility, outstanding clarity, tremendous commitment, thrilling sopranos, rich altos, powerful male voices, superb soloists … and just about every other virtue you could look for. Their performance was quite remarkable and it is hard to envisage any of this music being performed with greater precision, commitment, control and feeling.


The spine of the programme consisted of three pieces by Pēteris Vasks, who was interviewed in a pre-concert event. Window is a ravishingly beautiful setting of a poem by Czesław Miłosz, sung in an English translation by Miłosz and Lillian Vallee (who was unfortunately not credited in the programme). The choir’s subtle gradations of volume were profoundly impressive. In Mūsu māšu vārdi we had the world premiere of Vask’s new version of an earlier (1971) setting of a poem by the Latvian poet Maris Caklais, who died in 2003. Vasks responded to the poem’s imagery of birds with music both complex and radiant, in which the words finally disappeared into birdsong. Māte saul, written in 1975, sets a poem by another Latvian poet, Janis Peters, a text drawing on ancient mythological reverence for the sun. It rounded off the concert with an appropriately full-throated blaze of sound from the choir. 


The Latvian Radio Choir included works by two other compatriots. Mārtiņš Viļums (born 1974) was represented by a work of 2003, Le temps scintille, setting lines (rather than complete poems) by Rilke and Valéry. Keening sopranos and profound basses, heavily emphasised sibilants and fragmentary polyphonic patterns made for a work of unusual but compelling beauty. Legende de la femme enmurée by Ēriks Ešenvalds (born 1977) won the 53rd UNESCO International Rostrum in the Young Composers category in 2006. A setting of an Albanian folksong which recounts an ancient legend of how three brothers started to build a castle to protect them from Greek and Roman invaders. Their mother dreamt that if one of the sons offered his wife, the castle would stay strong. The two older brothers tricked the young one into the loss of his wife. Ešenvalds’s setting draws on the sound-world of Albanian folksong, and the Latvian Radio Choir obviously revelled in the unusual timbres and intervals; the work arced from simplicity through a turbulent middle section – very powerfully sung – back to a close which echoes its beginning. It wasn’t hard to hear why the work – in a performance by this same choir - should have won so prestigious a prize.

The Choir’s programme also included three more familiar works by names more familiar than those of Viļums and Ešenvalds. Ligeti’s Lux aeterna raised the hairs on the back of one’s neck and the choir’s sustained notes were things of remarkable beauty, the whole resonant with a luminous gravity. Pärt’s Dopo la vittoria (1997) contradicts many of the stereotypes of its composer’s music. It opens (and closes) in almost madrigalesque fashion, full of dancing rhythms, and there follow clearly defined sections – the text is a narrative of the baptism of St. Augustine – some very dramatic, others solemn. Again, the Choir’s performance was profoundly impressive. Glorious Hill by Gavin Bryars was first performed by the Hilliard Ensemble in 1988. The composer’s own description of the work is apt: “the piece moves between passages for solo voices and sections of highly chromatic homophony, almost as if the music were switching between the 12th century of Perotin and the 16th century of Gesualdo”. It sets a text from the Italian renaissance philosopher, Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, on the glorious gift of free will, in slow moving music which was movingly sung with restrained power.

Each of the choir’s conductors took responsibility for one half of the programme and both made important contributions to a memorable evening’s music. The rest of the Festival will have to be good to follow the opening concert!

Glyn Pursglove







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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)