The world of choral music has seen a quiet
revolution in recent years. An unofficial school of composers
has emerged, the list of whose members would be very extended,
but which would include characters as diverse as Javier Busto,
Bob Chilcott and Morten Lauridsen. Their unifying characteristic
is a musical style which is approachable whilst remaining unmistakably
of our time. Many of the composers are themselves choral singers
and conductors, frequently participating in or judging international
festivals and competitions, so the quality of the choral writing
is usually very high indeed. These factors make their music very
popular with choirs, and in particular, with amateur choirs.
An important member of this movement is the Lithuanian composer,
Vytautas Miškinis. His work is almost exclusively choral, with
a strong bias toward amateur performance. He has composed many
secular works, but his sacred works have a special appeal. Lithuania,
like Poland, is a strongly Catholic country, and most of the sacred
texts he sets are in Latin.
This disc, from the distinguished German publishing house, Carus-Verlag,
provides a good cross-section of Miskinis’s sacred works. I have
not checked the catalogue in detail, but I am assuming that the
music on this disc is all published by Carus. Certainly three
of the pieces are included in a Carus collection entitled Musica
Ave vera virginitas is a good example of the composer’s compositional
method. Strongly tonal, it opens with a rocking figure in the
altos, tenors and basses, full of added notes and “soft” dissonances.
This music becomes in the third bar an accompanying figure to
a rising melody in the sopranos. A short refrain, sung twice,
rounds off the first half of the piece. The opening music then
returns, slightly modified, for the second verse of the hymn.
The refrain then returns, again sung twice, to end the piece.
The piece begins firmly in A flat major, but as early as the eighth
bar is well on its way to a tonal centre of A, one semitone higher.
The final chord is one of A major, but in second inversion, with
an added second and sixth. If apologies are due for an overly
technical analysis, I hope it will give choral conductors yet
to encounter the music of Miškinis – surely a major target audience
for this disc – an idea of what to expect. This composer’s music
is gratifying to sing, though that is not to say that it is easy!
Choral singers have to be good listeners to succeed, as the harmonies
are highly charged, and richness of texture is achieved by frequent
divisions within each voice. Almost without exception each individual
piece charms the ear, but too much in the diet might be found
to be sweet and cloying. A tendency to slow tempi is another reason
why this disc is one to dip into rather than to listen to in one
The disc opens with a nearly six-minute setting of the Gloria,
surprisingly restrained in its response to the text. O salutaris
is notable for its middle section, wherein the upper voices chant
rapidly, perhaps with some aleatoric licence, over a choral-like
texture in the lower voices. The first of the two settings of
Cantate Domino brings music with a more rapid pulse, its gently
jazzy rhythm suggestive of the way a composer such as John Rutter
might choose to communicate the positive nature of the words.
The second setting is altogether more restrained, even a little
austere, this last not generally a word associated with this composer.
His Ave Maria supports those who accuse Miškinis of over-egging
the pudding, but I love it, and choirs and audiences will surely
do so too. Dilexi is very challenging, both to sing and to listen
to. The longest piece on the disc, it contains some dramatic passages
and harsh dissonances, admirably mastered by the excellent choir.
The publisher has thoughtfully reproduced the final page of the
score of Ad te levavi in the booklet, allowing us to see how the
composer uses random elements to achieve certain, often surprising,
aural effects. There are some random events in Dum medium silentium
too, or so it seems to me, not having access to the score. It’s
clear that this exciting, eight-part piece would tax the skills
of all but the most accomplished amateur choirs. Tu es features
some highly original “Hallelujahs” and ends inconclusively. Alma
Dei creatoris is not one of the composer’s most memorable pieces.
The ten-verse Veni Sancte Spiritus, on the other hand, is a total
success, a touching response to the text and with a number of
striking choral effects. It is difficult to imagine any singer
or audience member remaining unmoved by the lovely Angelis suis.
I will praise the Lord is the only piece on the disc not in Latin
and the only one with organ accompaniment. It provides a suitably
spirited finish to the disc, but it seems curiously uncommitted,
almost as if by another composer, its high spirits easily earned.
Kammerchor Consonare is a German choir specialising in Baltic
and Scandinavian music. Their performances of these pieces are
exemplary, with tuning generally spot-on even in the most taxing
passages. The booklet includes some useful notes in German and
English. The Latin texts are translated into German only. The
recording is excellent. Overall, this disc is an excellent introduction
to the music of Miškinis, and whilst choral conductors will find
it of practical use, any music-lover with an interest in contemporary
choral music shouldn’t miss it.