Amber Songs
Kamér Youth Choir/Janis Liepinš
rec. April 2014, St John’s Church, Riga, Latvia
Latvian texts and English translations included
KAMÉR KCD013 [74:19]

This disc preserves a remarkable project. I suspect it may have been connected with the fact that in 2014 Riga was one of two European Capital Cities of Culture, though that’s not stated in the otherwise comprehensive booklet. The Amber Songs project was conceived around the idea that amber is Latvia’s most precious gem while folk songs are the gem of the country’s culture. Accordingly seventeen composers from sixteen nations – two composers were Latvian – were each invited to write an arrangement of a Latvian traditional song. The results, all sung in Latvian, are recorded here. The net was cast wide in selecting the composers. Among those involved are not only composers from the Nordic and Baltic countries but also composers from the Basque country, Belgium, Britain, Germany, India, Israel, Poland, Russia, Turkey and the USA.

The results are, inevitably, extremely varied in terms of the nature and style of the arrangements. The music is also very demanding in all sorts of ways. It would be impossible – and tedious – to comment on all seventeen individual pieces so I’ll confine myself to a few which made a particular impression. The fact that a piece may not be mentioned individually does not mean that it’s below par in some way. For ease of reference I shall use the English titles of the pieces.

I liked very much the opening item. Adoration is a song that depicts joy at the arrival of Spring and the Lithuanian Vytautas Miškinis has arranged it most effectively and with evident understanding of the original idiom. It’s a lovely, fresh-sounding piece and it’s sung here with evident attention to detail and no little polish. The Swedish composer, Jan Sandström’s arrangement of The Tall Bean has lots of textural variety. It’s a most inventive piece and it’s marvellously sung.

In his arrangement of No Bird Sings as Nicely Gabriel Jackson depicts birdsong most effectively through free, high-pitched singing which decorates the narrative of the song itself. His textures are, for the most part, gossamer light and a sense of rapture pervades the music. This is a very beautiful number. Very different is Kaladu as arranged by the German, Michael Ostrzyga. This song depicts a “mystical, poetic winter solstice scene”. The arrangement is slow-moving and very mysterious. You can almost visualise a sparse winter landscape. And the following item offers contrast yet again. Two Grey Horses by the American, Ethan Sperry is a strong, vigorous song full of rhythmic urgency. Percussion, mainly in the form of a hollow-sounding drum, is used for extra impact. This is an exciting setting. Near the end of the programme we hear Beyond Nine Lakes by the Israeli, Gilad Hochman. This is harmonically very interesting and it sounds to be expertly written for voices.

There aren’t many items here that I didn’t enjoy. I’m afraid I didn’t warm to the way the Belgian composer, Nicholas Lens approaches The Sun Rose. He’s not the only composer here who uses vocal effects such as glissandi and syllabic writing. However, for my taste Lens employs these techniques far too much and his arrangement struck me as too clever by half. It’s good to find composers tackling folk songs with a fresh pair of ears but this is not my idea of an arrangement of what is, in essence, simple material. It has to be said, though, that the young singers seem completely undaunted by the score’s demands. Neigh, Neigh by the young Latvian composer, Evija Skuke starts off promisingly enough but I think it becomes a bit too experimental later on.

These are the exceptions and, in any case, my view of these two items is one of subjective personal taste. Overall this collection of modern folksong arrangements is very interesting indeed and there’s much to enjoy. In particular I take my hat off to these composers for tackling songs in a language with which the majority of them will have been completely unfamiliar.

Without exception the arrangements are technically challenging but the young singers of Kamér seem completely at ease with all the pieces. Furthermore, their singing is exceptionally good in all respects. The sound of the choir is very pleasing and there’s a freshness to everything they do. Latvia has a long and very proud singing tradition which, I understand, permeates the population. These high calibre young singers certainly act as terrific ambassadors for the quality of Latvian choral singing.

The recording is very good, presenting the singing truthfully and clearly. As for the presentation of the disc, all I can say is that it’s very superior indeed. The disc comes inside a hard back book cover. Inside, each composition is allocated three pages, one of which is a full-page black and white photograph of the composer. There’s also a short note about each piece, the Latvian text and an English translations and a useful biography of the composer, the latter being particularly useful since I suspect many of these men and women will be unfamiliar to many collectors. Add in an introductory essay, more photographs, information about the choir and its young conductor (he was born in 1988) and you have exemplary presentation.

Adapting the well-known phrase, you might say one should never judge a CD by its cover. Well, on this occasion you can, because the presentation mirrors the quality of the music and performances. This is a very fine advertisement for Latvian choral singing.

John Quinn

Vytautas MIŠKINIS (b. 1954)
Peteris PLAKIDIS (b. 1947)
Janis the Charmer
Jan SANDSTRÖM (b. 1954)
The Tall Bean
Nicholas LENS (b. 1957)
The Sun Rose
Evija SKUKE (b. 1992)
Neigh, Neigh
Hasan UÇARSU (b. 1965)
I Sailed With My Boat
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
No Bird Sings as Nicely
Michael OSTRZYGA (b. 1975)
Ethan SPERRY (b. 1971)
Two Grey Horses
Peeter VÄHI (b. 1955)
Behind the Great Water
Kasia GLOWICKA (b. 1977)
Autumn Work Song
Henrik ØDEGAARD (b. 1955)
The Miller-girl Beseeches God
Param VIR (b. 1952)
Feast Song
Xabier SARASOLA (b. 1960)
Mother of the Wind
Gilad HOCHMAN (b. 1982)
Beyond Nine Lakes
Franz HERZOG (b. 1962)
The Girl Sleeps
Vladimir MARTYNOV (b. 1946)
Six Songs

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