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Nature and The Soul - Latvian Choral Classics
Emīls DĀRZIŅŠ (1875-1910)
Long Ago [3:29]
Moonbeams [3:23]
The Broken Pines [3:12]
Emilis MELNGAILIS (1874–1954)
Nature and the Soul [3:53]
Latvian Requiem - Move Gently and Quietly [11:31]
Jānis ZĀLĪTIS (1884–1943)
The Goblet on the Isle of the Dead [4:46]
Jēkabs GRAUBIŅŠ (1886–1961)
Night Has Entered the Forest [3:01]
Jāzeps VĪTOLS (1863-1948)
The Day is Ending [1:40]
The Moon Lied [1:19]
The Enchanted Forest [3:43]
The Dwarves and the Old Man of the Forest [4:05]
The King and the Mushroom [2:32]
David Before Saul [8:05]
The Sun’s Revelry [3:23]
Latvian Radio Choir/Kaspars Putniņš
rec. St John’s Church, Riga, 2016
SKANI 054 [58:48]

Several weeks ago, as is my wont on a Saturday morning, I switched on BBC Radio 3 to listen into Record Review. The programme had already begun, and the angelic strains of a choir wafted across the room. I was completely enthralled by the purity of ensemble, clarity of diction, sensitivity and superb sense of phrasing. The piece, of timeless appeal, was unknown to me. At the end it was announced - Bik̦eris miron̦u salā (The Goblet on the Isle of the Dead) by Jānis Zālītis.

I was so pleased to be given the opportunity to review this. It’s been released in anticipation of the centenary celebrations of Latvia's independence in 2018. The title of the disc ''Nature and the Soul'' is taken from one of the songs by Emilis Melngailis, and it presents five native composers. Whilst the names may be unfamiliar to outsiders, for Latvian choirs most will be familiar. Emīls Dārziņš, the composer of the first three songs, identified two elements which lie at the heart of the Latvian choral tradition: nature, and the ''various emotional states of the soul''. For Kaspars Putniņš, the choir’s director, the album is both a ''love letter to Latvia'' and a homecoming.

From the opening track of Emīls Dārziņš Long Ago, the choir's supreme control of dynamic gradients is breathtaking. In Moonbeams, the celestial luminosity is conveyed to perfection in their gentle diaphanous expression. Emilis Melngailis was one of the notable figures in the Latvian choral tradition, responsible for collecting around 220 native folk songs. Nature and the Soul is rather four-square and hymn-like. His Latvian Requiem, the most substantial piece on the disc, is in four parts, in effect four independent songs.  The first three depict a funeral procession. In the first, Melngailis makes a pointed contrast between male and female voices, with the harmonic textures being rather pared down. In Doomsday, the final piece, punishment is meted out to those guilty of social injustice, translated into the more declamatory thrust of the music. Jānis Zālītis's The Goblet on the Isle of the Dead employs some bold and colourful harmonies, and is the highlight for me. Compelling is the choir's natural and effortless contouring of the music's ebb and flow.

Whereas Jēkabs Graubiņš is singly represented by the lyrically beguiling Night Has Entered the Forest, Jāzeps Vītols music takes up the lion’s share of the disc with seven songs. His music is influenced by German and Russian music as well as Latvian. The Day is Ending is subdued and restful as it ponders on the toils of the past day. The male voices have a wonderfully rich burnished quality in the opening measures of The Enchanted Forest, and in The Dwarves and the Old Man of the Forest, the crisp, incisive articulation is adeptly realized. David Before Saul, his masterpiece, is deeply reverential, and contrasts strikingly with The Sun's Revelry, lightly scored, genial and upbeat.

Everything about this release spells quality. The accompanying documentation in Latvian and English provides not only background and context to the music performed, but offers full texts and translations. The warm, intimate and sympathetic acoustic of St John’s Church, Riga, provides clear, vivid and well-balanced sound. Dynamic range and detail have been expertly achieved by the engineers. Kaspars Putniņš inspirational conducting secures the very best from his singers.

What a wonderful way to celebrate a centenary. I cannot but echo the heartfelt sentiments of Putniņš, ''On your one-hundredth birthday, I wish you many happy returns, dear Latvia''.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Rob Barnett



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