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On Photography
Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943)

And so ended Kant’s travelling in this world (1997) [7:50]
Three poems of Cecco Angiolieri (1997) [14:00]
On Photography (1983) [13:14]
Arturs MASKATS (b. 1957)

Da ispravitsja molitva moja (1936) [12:17]
Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937)

Diptychon (date of composition not given) [12:17]
Janis Maleckis (piano); Gavin Bryars (harmonium); Edgars Saksons (percussion); Monta Martinsone (soprano); Gundars Dzilums (baritone), Ensemble Cosmos
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava (conductor), Kaspars Putnins (On Photography)
rec. 10-14 January 2005, St. Johns Church; Riga Reformer’s Church, Riga Latvia.
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I’ll just kick things off with a bang and go on record as stating that this is one of the best choir discs I’ve heard in recent years.

The Latvian Radio Choir handles difficult material with ease and with no noticeable sagging in pitch over the duration of these pieces. These new and unfamiliar works have a great beauty, hold the attention of the listener, and are works of quality. Quite simply, a stunning achievement.

Of the pieces represented here, only the Diptychon by Silvestrov appears to have been previously available on commercial recording. All will likely be unfamiliar to most listeners. In this recording, for the first time, GB Records (Gavin Bryars’ own label) includes works by someone other than the man who established the label. Bryars is certainly well-represented here, with seven of the ten tracks by him; included here are two astounding works by Valentin Silvestrov and Arturs Maskats. All of these pieces — with the exception of one track — are a capella save for occasional percussion.

The disc starts off with Bryars’s setting of a paragraph from de Quincey’s The Last Days of Immanuel Kant. The tonality is very much from that of early church music — a tone that carries us though the disc. The Maskats piece is the showstopper; a breathtaking setting of three verses of Psalm 141, starting with verse two. With child soprano Monta Martinsone repeating the line that titles the work ("let my prayer be set forth" in the King James translation - the work is sung in Russian), this section is a wonderful depiction of a fragile hope, of humility before God. By verse three the fear of sin is given expression through Gundars Dzilums’s ominous baritone. The choir builds as the urgency of the plea rises to the breaking-point. The pale hope, the fragile faith represented by the soprano returns. An absolutely stunning work.

Next, the centrepiece of the album, Bryars’ On Photography has a lot to live up to after such a piece. It holds its own, though not as visceral or urgent. It is a setting in three movements of the poetry of Cardinal Pecci written in 1867, before he became Pope Leo XIII. It is written, like the other Bryars pieces, in a style steeped in early church music. The choir begins in octaves. The middle movement begins in unison, and for the first time on this disc we hear a harmonium and piano which maintain a barely-there presence. The middle movement’s 17 minute length overstays its welcome with extended Philip Glass-like noodling, but the work as a whole is quite affecting.

The final piece, the Diptychon by Russian composer Valentin Silvestrov, begins with a beautiful setting of the Lord’s Prayer. It has a very Russian Orthodox flavour, with the higher voices shifting chords over a bass drone. At no point here or elsewhere does the Latvian Radio Choir wobble in its control over dynamics, pitch or expression. This ensemble has immense range vocally and emotionally; they display the range of both to great effect here. Recording and production values for this disc are superb, and the performances set a very high standard for any subsequent recordings of works that should be performed more widely. A triumph.

David Blomenberg

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