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Nature and The Soul - Latvian Choral Classics
Latvian Radio Choir / Kaspars Putniņš
rec. St John’s Church, Riga, 2016
SKANI 054 [58:48]

I have had the pleasure of hearing the Latvian Radio Choir in concert on two occasions when they came to sing in Southwest France as part of the festival of music organised each summer by Radio France. I have never heard a finer choir. Whether dispensing immense power – with seemingly little effort – or the most delicately nuanced singing, their performances are compelling, drawing the listener in. Their repertoire is wide-ranging, but both times I heard them they closed the concert with an encore of traditional Latvian music. Few things I have heard in concert are more moving than this. Here they are, now, in just the kind of repertoire in which they excel. These are not, in fact, folk song arrangements, but original choral works by Latvian composers working at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Many listeners will be unfamiliar with most of them. Much of the music is homophonic, which makes the task of following the texts in the booklet really quite easy, despite the difficulties of the language. And although each of the composers here lived and worked well into the twentieth century, there is nothing that is likely to disturb those who remain wary of anything that sounds too modern.

The three opening pieces by Emīls Dārziņš will provide a good idea of what is to come. These songs could almost be folk music, so simple and direct is their appeal, and it is unsurprising that many of these composers were active in the field of folk music research. The natural world features widely in these songs, as it also does in Latvian folk songs. Other, more specific themes include the moon and – in particular – the sun, as well as conflict and war, as the frequently conquered nation seeks to assert and display its national identity and independence. There are love songs too, but that is a theme that seems of less concern to Latvian writers, another characteristic shared with Latvian folk song.
The performances of these three pieces also provide a good taster of what is to follow. You would expect impeccable tuning in a world-class choir such as this one, and indeed you get it. You are also treated to vocal colour of extreme beauty as well as unanimity of attack and expression. None of this is surprising, perhaps, but where this choir stands out, particularly in this repertoire, is the extreme fervour of the singing. This is clearly music that is in the singers’ blood. They are telling their life story through these comparatively simple pieces.
The lovely ‘Nature and the Soul’ by Melngailis gives the album its name, but more interesting, if anything, is the same composer’s Latvian Requiem. This is really four separate songs, the first three of which recount the deceased’s final journey: “Through the glades and fens where as a child I played … There, to the sandy burial mound, Gently! Slowly!” The mood is one of reflective sadness, until the final song, ‘Doomsday’, where bitterness and anger spill over in music that really refuses to “go gentle into that good night”.
Other pieces that have particularly entranced this listener are the two exquisite miniatures by Jāzeps Vītols, ‘The Day is Ending’ and ‘The Moon Lied’. But in truth, if the first track of this beautiful disc appeals, every song that follows will bring pleasure.
William Hedley
Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Stephen Greenbank (Recording of the Month)


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 [5:29]
Latvian Requiem – Gently, Slowly [1:48]
Latvian Requiem – The Sun is Setting [2:04]
Latvian Requiem – Doomsday [2:48]
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]

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