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Jēkabs JANČEVSKIS (b. 1992)
Odplyw (“Ebb Tide”) [7:05]
Atsalums (“Coldness”) [6:33]
Mater amabilis [5:00]
Aeternum [5:53]
O lux beata Trinitas [9:03]
When [10:13]
Ar zvaigžņu kluso gaismu (“Silent Starlight”) [4:22]
The Button [8:47]
Mixed Choir of Riga Cathedral Choir School/Jurģis Cābulis
rec. 2018/19, Riga Recording Company A Studio and Latvian Radio Studio 1, Latvia
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from Hyperion
HYPERION CDA68328 [56:59]

Contemporary choral music, especially that with minimal instrumental accompaniment, is not a genre I tend to frequent. However, Marc Rochester’s review was so effusive that it intrigued me. Also, there was the mention of one track (When) using text from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Since I was in the process of preparing a talk for my music appreciation group about musical depictions of R & J, I felt I should investigate. While COVID19 has swept the talk aside, I’m very glad that I listened to the whole album, as it could well make me a convert to this genre.

If I have any classical music among the almost 3000 albums stored on my hard drive written by a composer born more recently than 1992, then I’m not aware of it. Jēkabs Jančevskis was only 26 when these were recorded, and obviously younger when they were written (there aren’t any definite dates in the notes contributed by the composer). His style is tonal and melodic though peppered with enough dissonance to avoid any sense of oversweetness. There is an obvious connection to the choral traditions of the Renaissance, but I also heard rhythms that reminded me of Poulenc’s wonderful Gloria, and solos for high voices that brought to mind Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem for a Friend (which I realise is a rather obscure reference).
Marc Rochester mentioned his irritation with the laughter in Atsalums, which I second. It sounds so false, and destroys the beauty elsewhere in the piece, especially the soprano solo, though perhaps that is the composer’s intention, given that the text tells the story of a young woman obsessed with money and possessions.

It is hard to pick out highlights in an album where, aside from the laughing, there are no real weak points. O lux beata Trinitas was inspired by a 13th century battle on Latvian soil; it begins and ends in beauty, separated by the depiction of the battle. It too uses non-sung vocalisations but these are far less jarring than the laughing. When, the work which was my initial stimulus for listening to the album, features two distinct choral groups with a solo cello, and features some of the most dramatic music on the album as well as some of the most beautiful.

But the final work, The Button, is perhaps my favourite, and this may be because it uses the most instrumental accompaniment – organ, percussion and tenor saxophone, a nod to Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, perhaps. The text is a poem written by Latvian anti-Soviet agitator Knuts Skujenieks, who spent a number of years in a labour camp, with his only reminder of his homeland and family being a button his wife had sewn onto his shirt. Like Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it is intensely powerful and moving.

Of the performances, I can only say that the Riga Cathedral School is blessed with a marvellous choir, who give wholehearted and impeccable performances. The production values are of the usual high Hyperion standard.

If you feel that contemporary classical music should be all hard edges, then this won’t be for you. But, if like me, you think music, unlike noise, should have at least one of melody, harmony and rhythm, this will definitely appeal.

David Barker

Previous review: Marc Rochester (Recording of the Month)

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