RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Songs of the Baltic Sea
Vaclovas AUGUSTINAS (b.1959) Tau Bet Kokios Sutemos Šviesios [5:21]
Mindaugas URBAITIS (b.1952) Lacrimosa (1991) [5:45]
Vaclovas AUGUSTINAS Hymne à St Martin (1996) [5:04]
Peteris PLAKIDIS (b.1947) Nolemtiba (Destiny): Symphony for Choir* [28:49]
Galina GRIGORJEVA (b.1962) Svjatki: Choir Concerto** [17:57]
Gabriel JACKSON (b.1962) Cantus Maris Baltici (2009)** [14:01]
National Youth Choir of Great Britain/Mike Brewer
rec. Merton College Chapel, Oxford, 26 August 2010; * Lancing College Chapel, 28 August 2010; ** Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, 14-15 April 2010. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34052 [76:59]
Based on the several discs by Mike Brewer and his excellent National Youth Choir of Great Britain that I’ve heard, several words come to mind to describe them. One is “excellent” but the one that comes most readily to mind in respect of this CD is “enterprising” – though I hasten to say that the disc is also excellent!
On a previous disc, Mike Brewer’s World Tour (review), they offered music from many nations. Here they confine themselves to one particular region, the Baltic, and perform music from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The Baltic nations have a rich choral tradition, which has been a vital part of their respective societies, especially when the countries were Soviet satellites. Now that these countries have gained their independence this choral tradition – which continues to be vibrant – has been opened up to music-lovers elsewhere in the world. The Baltic choral tradition is discussed, along with the works on this programme, by composer Gabriel Jackson in his fascinating booklet notes. Jackson is an authority on this subject and in this review I shall draw quite heavily on his note. With the exception of Jackson himself, all the composers represented here were new to me.
We start in Lithuania. Vaclovas Augustinas is represented by two pieces. The French title of Hymne à St Martin is explained by the fact that it was written to mark the 1600th anniversary of the death of St. Martin of Tours. Despite the French title the piece is sung in Latin. It’s a lovely piece which, in Gabriel Jackson’s apt description, has a “gentle, unostentatious glow.” In contrast Tau Bet Kokios Sutemos Šviesios (‘Whither shall I go then from Thy Spirit?’), which sets verses from Psalm 139, is a powerful and expressive utterance which the National Youth Choir sings with arresting confidence. In this impressive work Augustinas’s textures are rich whereas Lacrimosa by Mindaugas Urbaitis tends more towards minimalism. This is a Latin setting of the last verse of the ‘Dies Irae’ and the music takes the form of a passacaglia, relying a good deal on motivic repetition. Eventually (at 4:41) he quotes the melodic line of a few bars from the ‘Lacrimosa’ of Mozart’s Requiem, after which Urbaitis’s piece rather peters out.
Latvia is represented by Peteris Plakidis and his substantial, five-movement Symphony for Choir: Nolemtiba. Gabriel Jackson says that this work owes something to the Russian Choir Concerto tradition. I found it to be a most impressive composition. The five movements, which set nature-inspired texts by the Latvian poet Ojars Vacietis (1933-1983), cover a wide emotional range and make enormous demands on the choir. The first movement is tense and dramatic while the music of the succeeding movement is fast and features “restless ostinatos” (Jackson). That second movement demands – and receives here – lightness and precision from the choir as well as abundant energy. The central, slow movement mixes some lovely choral writing, especially for the ladies’ voices and some more assertive passages, in which the men are usually to the fore. After a virtuoso canonic scherzo the final movement contains, I think, the finest music of all. As Gabriel Jackson observes, the writing is “full of wide-eyed wonder” at the start. Then Plakidis introduces a long-breathed melody, first given to the altos and then taken up by the tenors and, all the while, exquisitely decorated by the sopranos. This, it seems to me, is optimistic music, expressing a joy in nature. Eventually the music quietly dissolves. This movement is a moving end to an eloquent piece. I would imagine that it’s ferociously difficult to master but Mike Brewer’s exceptional young singers deliver it superbly.
Moving on into Estonia we encounter music by Galina Grigorjeva, Ukrainian-born but a naturalised Estonian. Her Svjatki (‘Holy Days’) is, says Gabriel Jackson, “a bone fide Russian choir concerto..[setting].. texts of folkloric origin.” It’s another impressive work. Cast in six movements, this piece, like the Plakidis work, requires not only an expert choir but also one that is totally committed to the music. No doubts on that score on this occasion! The first movement is clearly rooted in the Russian orthodox tradition. Some of the following movements use soloists from within the choir and all those involved do a first rate job. The third movement, for example, contains a wide-ranging and very expressive contralto solo, splendidly taken here by Stephanie Guidera, who has a gorgeous tone. A very intense soprano solo (the excellent Charlotte Brosnan) dominates the slow fifth movement. The final movement is a joyous setting of a Christmas text into which is woven some lines from Psalm 150.
Gabriel Jackson’s Cantus Maris Baltici (‘Songs of the Baltic Sea’) was written at the request of Mike Brewer as a companion piece to the other music in this programme. Brewer proposed that a text from each of the three Baltic countries should be set and this has been done, using English translations. Jackson adopts the theme of looking eastwards in this fascinating work which, though divided into sections plays continuously. Throughout he displays his habitual excellent feel for innovative choral textures and, as so often happens in his choral music, the singers are stretched but not absurdly so and I’m sure they don’t mind being stretched by such rewarding music. The music for the second main section (3:37 – 8:37), which the composer describes as a “nocturnal barcarolle”, is bewitching and highly imaginative in the way the voices are used. The music in the third movement is deliberately hesitant in nature, as suggested by the text, and it contains some very beautiful and atmospheric choral writing. At the end Jackson sets a couple of lines by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to plainsong-like music that fades to nothingness.
This is a most impressive disc. All the music on it was new to me and it’s all very rewarding to hear. The performances of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain are beyond praise. Throughout the programme they give assured and highly committed performances. Not only is the sound they make excellent and their discipline superb but also I admire enormously their linguistic versatility. In this programme they sing, I presume, in Lithuanian, Estonian and Russian, beside which bits of music in Latin and English seem but a mere bagatelle. What a fantastic and challenging grounding in choral music these young singers obtain from Mike Brewer!
Working in three different venues engineer Paul Baxter has produced sound that is up to the usual top-drawer Delphian standards. The documentation is excellent though it’s a very minor irritant that not all of the dates of composition are supplied. That, however, is only a very minor criticism of a disc that confirms and enhances the National Youth Choir’s reputation for excellence and enterprise. Bravo!
A disc that confirms and enhances the National Youth Choir’s reputation for excellence and enterprise.