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Santa RATNIECE (b.1977)
Saline / Sālsezers for choir (2006) [11:49]
Hirondelles du Coeur for mixed choir and orchestra (2007) [21:55]
Horo horo hata hata for chamber choir (2008) [11:07]
Chu dal (Silent Water) for mixed choir (2008) [12:50]
Ieva Ezeriete (soprano)
Latvian Radio Choir, Latvijas Radio kora grupa, Sinfonietta Rīga/Sigvards Kļava, Kaspars Putniņš, Normunds Šnē
rec. Latvian Radio and Riga St John's Basilica, 2006-2010

Latvian composer Santa Ratniece pursued her music studies at Riga's Dārziņš College then at the Vītols Latvia Academy of Music. She emerged into public view in 2004 when she won first prize at the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers. This was for her sens nacre for ensemble.

Ratniece's Saline / Sālsezers for choir is an advanced piece, as are all four works on this disc. Twittering noises gently ruffle the textures while the mixed choir are tested in wheeling and plunging music that seems to draw on orthodox chant. The music sounds at once affecting, archaic and avant-garde in a wailing Polish 1960s idiom. Listen to the strange noises drawn from the female singers at the close of the piece. Those bird effects cannot help but recall Rautavaara's 1970s piece Cantus Arcticus with its wildfowl tape.

The slip-sliding slalom of the violins, such a hallmark of 1960s Penderecki, is deployed very quietly in the delightfully named Hirondelles du Coeur. Strange birdcalls, whispers and beautiful glittering breathy effects are drawn from the women of the Latvian Radio Choir. There are tougher groaning noises from the men. The orchestra is used in miniature rather than in massed effects. It is in constant but understated action. Ratniece specialises in an otherworldly mosaic with the sounds always in motion rather than stasis. Things are rarely at rest with Ratniece.

The poetry set by Ratniece in Hirondelles du Coeur is by Forrugh Farrokhzad. It is printed in full in the booklet that comes with the disc, as are the words for all four pieces. The soprano Ieva Ezeriete negotiates a fragile solo line, weaving around the diaphanous textures playfully floated by choir and orchestra. The music seems to slow the passage of time. Ratniece's opulence and delicacy seems to claim lineage back to Szymanowski but refracted through the alembic of the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde. There is also a kinship with the music of John Tavener.
Horo horo hata hata for chamber choir is of a piece with Saline in its ululations, humming and vulnerable stratospheric lines for the females. It would not surprise me to hear that Ratniece had written for male altos for she clearly values testing the human voice heard in a high eminence. She balances a prayerful atmosphere with a wide array of vocal effects, many hard won and tough to sustain. A storm of chittering noises, nasal sneers, baby sounds and avian cries - all provided by these elite virtuosic singers - provide contrast with the work's earlier idyllic pages.

Chu dal (Silent Water) is like two of the other three works in that it is of approximately concert overture duration. It too is a confection of slender sounds - a sort of modernistic extension of the choir sounds at the end of Holst's Neptune. As with so much else we hear from this composer Chu dal communicates as if we are listening in on a religious rite which is for the moment beyond our understanding. Any composer who creates a piece of music with the word 'Silent' in the title clearly wants to challenge herself … and us. Like Horo horo hata hata, three-quarters of the way through the music subsides into silence. The singing then resumes with the choir seeming ecstatically to intone fragments of an alleluia through downy elements of birdsong. At least that's the sense that my ears 'read'.

This disc, housed in a digipack and with a visually attractive booklet, is Ratniece's calling-card. Here is a composer who takes no prisoners among musicians when it comes to translating what she hears in her mind to the listener's aural experience.

Rob Barnett



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