Totus Tuus
Henryk GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
Totus Tuus (1987) [11:35]
Arvo PäRT (b. 1935)
Seven Magnificat Antiphons (1991) [15:44]
Mikalojus Konstantinas čURLIONIS (1875-1911)
Kyrie [4:09]
Sanctus [3:39]
Wojciech KILAR (b. 1932)
Agnus Dei (1993, revised 1997) [5:57]
Imant RAMINS (b. 1943)
Ave Verum Corpus [7:50]
Peteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Dona Nobis Pacem (1997) [15:26]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1920-1998)
Eröffnungsvers zum ersten Festspielsonntag [2:25]
Versija Chamber Choir/Juris Vaivods and Raitis Grigalis; Aivars Kalejs (organ)
rec. Riga Cathedral, Latvia
Some texts provided
JADE 699 730-2 [66:56]

The cover photograph, which I suspect will not be this disc’s greatest selling point, appears to make reference to the first performance of Górecki’s Totus Tuus in Warsaw during a Mass celebrated by John Paul II. In fact, there is rather more to it than that, as the French company Editions Jade publishes only sacred music “with the conviction that if God did not exist man would not sing”. No recording date is given, but it was probably 1997. The booklet is a mess. Information about the composers and performers has not all been translated from the French, the sung texts are scrappily presented, and Jade would have us believe that Górecki and Schnittke are still alive.

Totus Tuus is a serene meditation addressed to the Virgin. The composer indicates a duration of ten to eleven minutes, but this performance stretches it further, and in spite of the undeniable concentration of the performers, I don’t think it works. The score’s copious expression markings are difficult to interpret and can seem contradictory, but it is clear that the work is to be sung very slowly indeed. The final passage contains no fewer than six exhortations to slow down still further, so if the tempo is very slow to start with things get dangerously sticky by the end. And if the conductor indulges from time is some affectionate phrasing he is in real danger of testing the listener’s patience. For some this work is an intensely moving experience, devotion translated into music, whereas others find it empty, saccharine, and with too few ideas stretched out for far too long. I can understand both points of view, but a performance such as this one certainly encourages the former. On a disc I reviewed some time ago the Dutch choir Cantatrix dispatched the work in a little over eight and half minutes, rather missing the point (Aliud ACDHN 034w-2). This performance goes too far in the other direction.

The conductor allows himself a little interpretative freedom in the first of Pärt’s masterly Seven Magnificat Antiphons too, bringing a strangely foreign, Romantic spirit to the music. It is not unattractive. This choir’s marvellous basses are in their element in the second piece, “O Adonai”, and the acoustic comes to their aid too. Riga Cathedral is a fabulous building, but the reverberation time must be a nightmare for a recording engineer. In this second piece it adds to the atmosphere, but it is certainly not the case in the following two pieces, especially the fourth, “O Schlüssel Davids” where the crucial silences are filled with echo. In the fifth piece the reverberation undermines the composer’s decision to allot four sharps to two of the voices, but none at all to the other two, with the listener left wondering how much of the strange resulting harmony is actually intentional. I think the choir sings with considerable accuracy here, but the tuning is not always absolutely spot-on elsewhere, with some shaky opening chords and the key relation between the two final pieces more than a little strange. But this is a fine performance overall, and one to which I will certainly return.

The Lithuanian Mikalojus čurlionis was a distinguished painter as well as a composer. I don’t know if the two pieces performed here come from a complete Mass setting, but the Carus publication Musica Sacra Baltica contains a Gloria by him, so it may well be the case. That piece begins with the same kind of sub-Bach imitative writing with which the Kyrie also opens, and though there is more than a whiff of counterpoint textbook, there is undeniable grandeur nearer the end. The “Hosannas” in Sanctus, too, lift the music well above its rather humble beginning.

Polish composer Wojciech Kilar uses only the two words “Agnus Dei”, setting them as a repeated, rocking chant in the men’s voices below a wordless vocalise in the women’s voices. It evokes a strongly devotional atmosphere, but one finds nothing new in it after three or four hearings. Ave Verum Corpus by Latvian composer Imant Ramins is another matter. After repeated hearings one is less disturbed by the harmonic gear changes, and the piece is revealed for what it truly is, a rapt and beautiful setting of this ubiquitous text.

I am a great admirer of the music of Peteris Vasks, and am therefore disappointed to say that his Dona Nobis Pacem, the longest piece of uninterrupted music in the collection, outstays its welcome. The basic musical idea is haunting and attractive, but it lacks the substance to sustain a work of this length. This, and the final piece in the collection, are the only two with organ accompaniment. Schnittke’s work is a setting of a few lines from Psalm 47, the familiar words beginning “O clap your hands”. This is generally interpreted as a joyful, festive text, and so it is here, though Schnittke’s idea of joy is rather a peculiar one.

Much of the music in this collection is compelling, and the performances by the Latvian choir are very fine indeed, with just the odd moment of suspect tuning. Collectors who know the music might also find one or two of the conductor’s ideas rather surprising. The acoustic of the marvellous building is certainly a drawback on disc.

William Hedley

An interesting collection of modern sacred choral music, well sung on the whole, but in a very difficult acoustic.