Vytautas MIŠKINIS (b. 1954)
Thoughts of Psalms:-

Gloria [5:49]
O salutaris [3:23]
Cantate Domino [3:03]
Ave Maria [2:38]
Dilexi [5:40]
Cantate Domino [1:50]
Ade te levavi [3:33]
Miserere [2:27]
Tristis est anima mea [2:05]
Tenebrae factae sunt [2:29]
Ave vera virginitas [2:57]
Ad te Dominum levavi [1:27]
Dum medium silentium [5:25]
Tu es [4:41]
Alma Dei creatoris [2 :55]
Veni Sancte Spiritus [7:54]
Angelis suis [3:55]
I will praise the Lord [3:50]
Kammerchor Consonare/Almut Stümke
rec. 21–25 October 2009, St. Nikolaikirche Moorfleet, Hamburg, Germany
CARUS-VERLAG 83.459 [65:43]

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 Sacra Baltica.

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 sitting.

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.

William Hedley

A fine collection of sacred music from a modern Lithuanian master.