Peteris VASKS (b. 1946)
The Tomtit’s Message (Ziles ziŋa) (1981/2004) [9:34]
Silent Songs (Klusās dziesmas) (1979/1992) [10:58]
Our Mother’s Names (Mūsu māšu vārdi) (1977/2003) [12:32]
The Sad Mother (Skumjā māte) (1980-1991) [3:35]
Summer (Vasara) (1978) [4:22]
Plainscapes (Līdzenuma ainavas) (2002) [16:41]
Small, Warm Holiday (Mazi, silti svētki) (1988) [1:27]
Birth (Piedzimšana) (2008) [12:17]
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava
rec. May 2011, St John’s Church, Riga, Latvia. Sung texts included (Latvian & English)
ONDINE ODE 1194-2 [71:28]

It’s been a while since I reviewed a disc of a cappella singing, so when this recording appeared on Len’s monthly mailing I decided to give it a whirl. I was doubly intrigued as I’ve only recently become acquainted with Vasks’ music through his Te Deum and other organ pieces - review - which struck me as very engaging and accomplished. As for the Latvian Radio Choir, formed in 1940, they’ve already recorded several CDs for BIS and Ondine, and minutes into Plainscapes it’s not hard to see why they’re in such demand. That said, the standard of modern a cappella singing - in the Nordic countries especially - is higher than ever, so they’re up against formidable competition in the execution stakes.
First impressions are promising, this mixed chorus singing with a cool, far-reaching purity that puts me in mind of those fine Scandinavian ensembles. The music is set to poems by indigenous poets, whom Vasks calls ’tribunes of freedom’ for their courage during the Soviet occupation of Latvia. The Tomtit’s Message, necessarily oblique, is a good example of this, its long lines interrupted by sundry swoops, cries, martial rat-a-tats and raucous laughter. The sound is clear and the church acoustic is generally sympathetic, so the oft high-lying passages aren’t at all fatiguing; more bass warmth would have been welcome, but really that’s a minor issue.
Three of the four miniatures that make up the Silent Songs are by Knuts Skujenieks (b. 1936), who survived seven years in a Gulag. The poems are gnomic, and the slow, rarefied vocal writing is both stoic and deeply affecting. Choral discipline and blend - so vital in music of sustained loveliness - are superb. Even in this frigid landscape beauty still blossoms; ‘sleep, sleep’ is soft and plangent, ‘three forests’ icily brilliant. What a range of emotion lurks behind these notes, and how well this choir articulates them. On first hearing Vasks’ choral style may seem a tad featureless, but the music takes compelling shape and grows in stature with repeated listening.
It’s not all subdued though; Our Mother’s Names, in which women are identified with different birds, has its aptly soaring moments. In the extended interview published in the booklet Vasks sees this as a powerfully symbolic gesture that binds people to each other and to the land; and like so much of the poetry here it has a nationalist message. Stylistically the piece veers between gathering strength and a sighing contentment, the spaces in between filled with bird calls. It’s most unusual, and mesmeric too. Vasks continues the feminine theme with Sad Mother, by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957). Written for women’s voices it’s a heart-piercing lullaby blessed with a wonderful line and framed with great feeling.
Summer is a light-filled interlude - goodness, what fearless singing, now hushed now stratospheric - before we move into the wordless Plainscapes. Vasks describes the latter as a hymn to the Latvian lowlands, its horizon-stretching vocal lines anchored by simple melodies on cello and violin. There’s a powerful sense of the immemorial, and although it’s the longest piece here it’s also the most immersive. There are ear-pricking touches too, the upward and downward glissandi most artfully done. After that comes the oddly titled - but perfectly formed - Small, Warm Holiday. The collection ends with Birth, which celebrates the life-giving power of the sun. It’s a taut, sinewy piece in which the singers fill the aural sky with light, now fierce, now fading. There’s even a pagan drum, sparingly used.
This is a captivating CD that only reveals its strengths and strange charm after several outings. As for this chorus and their chief conductor they do the composer proud; the Ondine engineers do well too. This quality package is enhanced by that interview with the composer, which offers many valuable insights and interesting asides.

Dan Morgan

Low-key writing of substance and strength; superbly sung.