RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Songs of the Baltic Sea
Vaclovas AUGUSTINAS (b. 1959)
Tau Bet Kokios Sutemos Šviesios [5:21]
Mindaugas URBAITIS (b. 1952)
Hymne à St Martin [5:04]
Peteris PLAKIDIS (b. 1947)
Nolemtiba: 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. 26 August 2010, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford (Augustinas, Urbaitis); 28 August 2008, Chapel of Lancing College, Lancing, UK (Plakidis); 14-15 April 2010, Church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London
DELPHIAN DCD34052 [76:59]
This recital gets off to a rousing start with the setting by Augustinas of part of Psalm 139. Here is the typical and unmistakable sound of contemporary Baltic choral music. The harmony is diatonic, but its richness, derived from clusters and overlapping suspensions, is at once voluptuous and challenging. This opening piece shares with the following Lacrimosa an abrupt and unexpected ending, in the latter case an “Amen” inserted at the point in Mozart’s Requiem – liberally quoted – where death stayed Mozart’s hand. The music gradually increases in richness and tension, the Mozart quotation at once unexpected yet curiously inevitable thereafter. This particular jury is still out – but actively considering its verdict – on whether the ploy adds up to a fully convincing work of art, but the beauty of the notes is not in question. The third work on the disc, the radiantly appealing Hymne à St Martin, sung in Latin – Lithuania is a catholic country – is in praise of a “poor and modest” man who is eventually welcomed and honoured in heaven. The Saint’s essential goodness is beautifully conveyed by music which, though not simple, makes its effect in a simple way. This is crowned by alleluias placed at the end of each of the three verses, the last one bringing to a close this most touching piece.
Some years ago, in Riga, I chanced upon a series of volumes entitled simply “Latvian Choral Music”. CDs, beautifully sung by the Ave Sol Chamber Choir of Riga under their conductor Imants Kokars, have been issued to complement these editions. Works by Peteris Plakidis feature in this series, many of them arrangements of folk songs, and at least one of them, for all its short duration, a masterpiece. His Symphony for Choirs, entitled “Destiny”, is the longest work on this disc and is urgently recommended to all those interested in modern choral music. The words are by the Latvian poet Ojars Vacietis, and deal with the painful history of the composer’s homeland, and indeed, of the whole region. The first movement is a grim call to arms, though arms do not feature, so a call to steadfastness and courage is perhaps a better description. The second movement opens with horses and horseshoe images, which perhaps explains the rhythmic ostinato that accompanies the upper voices. The subject is once again courage in the face of tyranny. A ray of hope appears in the third of the work’s five movements as the choir sings of what “should have been” – “a song as bright as a flash of lightning”. The sweetness of women’s voices is to the fore here, the frequently encountered Baltic characteristic of wide-ranging vocal lines over held chords in the lower voices. The canonic effects in this movement are particularly beautiful and touching. The fourth movement is a busy scherzo, with canons again, a heartfelt, urgent plea for peace and freedom. The final movement is a hymn to nature and love for mankind. This is music at its most radiant, and some listeners will sweet and rich, overwritten, just too easy a way of closing the work in peace and hope. This is not my opinion. Indeed, though it may be too generalised, even fanciful a view, I feel that this kind of sentiment rather embodies the astonishing resilience, fortitude and fundamental optimism of the people of this region.
The two remaining composers are present under false pretences, but no less welcome for that. Galina Grigorjeva, Ukrainian by birth, studied in Odessa, St Petersburg and finally in Tallinn with Lepo Sumera, whose music, much of which is available on BIS, I cannot recommend too highly. She is now a naturalised Estonian. Her Choir Concerto Svjatki (“Holy Days”) is in six short movements and is sung in Russian. The texts are mainly of folk origin, and the music communicates with a simple directness that beautifully complements them. There are too many splendid moments in this work to describe here, so I’ll settle for the fifth movement, in praise of Spring. You’d expect this to be full of excitement and anticipation of new growth, and so it is, in a way. But the long, held drone and solo soprano whose line weaves in and out of the complex yet crystal-clear web of sound created by the other voices communicate almost as much melancholy as promise. It is a remarkable achievement, much enhanced by the assured performance of Charlotte Brosnan. Indeed, so accomplished are all the soloists on this disc that it would be unfair not to cite them all. Congratulations and much admiration, then, to Amelia Berridge and Rachel Spencer, sopranos; Stephanie Guidera, mezzo; Sarah Champion and Felicity Buckland, altos; Richard Bignall and David Jones, tenors; and Dominic Berberi, bass. The final movement of Grigorjeva’s piece is an enchantingly joyful Christmas hymn that closes with the same cry – “Slava!” (Glory!) – that began the work. When the choir performs this splendid piece in concert it must surely bring the house down.
The other “foreigner”, Gabriel Jackson, also contributes the outstandingly fine booklet notes. I greatly enjoyed his In the Beginning was the Word on the recent choral recital by Merton College Choir, also on Delphian, and this work is arguably even finer. He uses many features of Baltic style, drone-like held notes and chords, diatonic dissonance and clusters, with the odd special effect thrown in. But like Grigorjeva’s music, with its mixture of folk and Orthodox style, Jackson’s sounds nothing like Baltic music. Cantus Maris Baltici gives the disc its title. It was written for these performers and to complete this particular programme. Its texts are taken from writers from all three Baltic countries, sung in English, and closes with a fragment, in Latin, by Francis Bacon. Choosing a high point is once again difficult, but the third section, an extended meditation on the nature of the sea, is perhaps the most striking. The tonal language and seductively rich harmonies might put the listener in mind of several fashionable composers of choral music, but there is a philosophical and musical truth here that is more rarely achieved, and that at once provokes beauty and transcends it. This is outstanding choral writing, and when performed with as much wisdom, technique, life and joy as these young singers display under their inspired and inspirational conductor, it makes for an unforgettable listening experience.
An inspired and inspiring recital, magnificently sung and recorded.