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Sacred Love
Track listing & performance details below review
rec. 7-13 October 2011, St John’s Church (Sv. Jāņa baznīca), Riga, Latvia
ONDINE ODE1226-2 [57:02]

The practice of a cappella singing goes back to earliest times. In certain branches of Christianity it is still held that while people are exhorted to sing in church according to various of the scriptures, (for example in Matthew 26:30; Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 2:12, 13:15; James 5:13), they should do so without aid of any instrumental accompaniment. In any event unaccompanied singing is the perfect example of the voice as instrument. The Eastern Orthodox Church is particularly renowned for it and has benefited from the compositions of giants like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. This history has popularised a cappella singing outside the church as well and it is much practised throughout Eastern Europe from Ukraine and Bulgaria to Russia and the Baltic States. This disc is a fine example of that tradition. With two exceptions all the pieces set texts by Russian poets.
 
The disc begins with four songs set by Russian composer Yuri Falik who studied cello under Rostropovich before concentrating on composition. A Stranger is set to words by Alexander Blok and is a wonderfully charming and atmospheric song that imprints itself upon the listener despite lasting a mere 1:50. The next song Your Temple, Lord which is an extract from a concerto for mixed choir with soprano that also embodies similar characteristics. The soprano’s soaring voice floats above the choir in the most affecting way. Habanera is, as implied, a spirited dance-song that whisks us off to Spain in a brightly coloured excursion. Alexander Pushkin’s poem Autumn, another extract from a concerto for choir, this time with tenor, is extremely evocative. While praising the beauty of the season it regrets the gradual descent into the long, often cruel, Russian winter.
 
The next two songs are by Latvian composer Arturs Maskats and the first is set to his own poem Let My Prayer Be Granted. This is taken from psalm texts and is very beautiful and melodious — full of soaring harmonies. Vesna (Spring) is set to words by Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago, and is the longest song on the disc at almost 14 minutes. In it the tenor sings of the earth awakening once more after the long winter. The use of tubular bells at certain points provides a break from the otherwise total lack of accompaniment.
 
The icing on the cake is the rest of the disc which is taken up by six songs by Soviet composer Georgi Sviridov, one of my personal favourite twentieth century composers for the voice. As Shostakovich remarked about his Poem in memory of Sergei Esenin “few notes (but) a lot of music”. This is the feature that strikes me when listening to his works for voice; that he can encapsulate so much in the tiniest fragments and the apparently simplest melody. His songs tap into the Russian ‘soul’ which is a major reason for his success in his homeland, so much so that all the country celebrated his 80th birthday. He even had a newly discovered asteroid named after him. All the songs are notable for their richness of melody as well as their deceptively simple framework, especially when it comes to the album’s title track. These six songs include settings of the greatest Russian poets, Pushkin, of whose words Sviridov was thought to be the supreme setter, Gogol, Aleksei Tolstoi and Alexander Blok. The results are particularly spellbinding when he sets a solo voice against the choir as in About Lost Youth and Icon.
 
The Latvian Radio Choir has a long and proud history, being founded in 1940. This continuity has been important in establishing itself as a leading world choir with its present chief conductor Sigvards Kļava having led it since 1992. As the notes explain its particular strength lies in its focus on “exploring the capabilities of the human voice and seeking to push its limits”. This disc has ample examples of that aim. The overall sound is particularly underlined by a beautifully pellucid clarity. The two soloists are worthy of special mention for their amazingly crystal clear tone; soprano Ieva Ezeriete whose voice is so wonderfully penetrating as it soars above the choir. Aleksandrs Antoņenko’s sonorous tenor has that same power usually associated with the ‘Russian bass’ and an inner strength that makes for a truly memorable and impressive listening experience.
 
This is a really gorgeous disc of marvellous compositions delivered in an uncompromisingly professional way. For all lovers of a cappella singing this is surely a must-have.
 
Steve Arloff
 
Track listing & performance details
Yuri FALIK (1936-2009)

1. A Stranger (Neznakomka) (1974) [1:50]
2. Your Temple, Lord (Khram Tvoy, Gospodi) (2001) from the concerto for soprano and mixed choir “Elegy” [5:09]
3. Habanera (1979) from the concerto for mixed choir “Poetry of Igor Severyanin” [2:03]
4. Autumn (Osen) (1998) from the concerto for mixed choir “Stanzas by Pushkin” [3:33]
Arturs MASKATS (b.1957)
5. Let My Prayer Be Granted (Da ispravitsya molitva moya) (2004) [9:04]
6. Spring (Vesna) (2011) [13:38]
Georgy SVIRIDOV (1915-1998)
7. Winter Morning (Zimneye utro) (1979) from the concerto “Pushkin’s Garland” [3:53]
8. About Lost Youth (Ob Utrachennoy Yunosti) (1958) from the cycle “Five compositions for choir” [4:03]
9. Christmas Carol (Kolyada) (1972-75) from the cycle “Three miniatures” [1:52]
10. Sacred Love (Lyubov’ Svyataya) (1973) music for the play by Aleksey Tolstoy “Tsar Feodor Iannovich” [3:16]
11. Natasha (1979) from “Pushkin’s Garland” [2;03]
12. Icon (Ikona) (1980) from the cycle “Songs for the End of Time” [5:59]
Aleksandrs Antoņenko (tenor) (4, 6, 8, 12), Ieva Ezeriete (soprano) (2, 10)
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Kļava