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Jēkabs JANČEVSKIS (b. 1992)
Odplyw (“Ebb Tide”) (2014) [7:05]
Atsalums (“Coldness”) (2014) [6:33]
Mater amabilis (2013) [5:00]
Aeternum [5:53]
O lux beata Trinitas [9:03]
When (2016) [10:13]
Ar zvaigžņu kluso gaismu (“Silent Starlight”) (2015) [4:22]
The Button (2017) [8:47]
Mixed Choir of Riga Cathedral Choir School / Jurģis Cābulis
rec 2018/19, Riga Recording Company A Studio & Latvian Radio Studio 1, Latvia
Full texts and translations included
HYPERION CDA68328 [56:59]

It is becoming increasingly difficult for even the most fervent choral music enthusiast to keep up with the seemingly inexhaustible profusion of talented young choral composers and outstanding choirs as they emerge on disc, one-by-one, on an almost weekly basis. While there is no geographical monopoly on the phenomenon, it is perhaps unsurprising that the old Soviet republic of Latvia is one of its major sources. The independence of the three Baltic nations in 1991 was achieved after what is known as ‘The Singing Revolution’ and Latvia itself is known as ‘The Singing Nation’. Hyperion are to be commended for recording a good deal of new repertoire from the country – the label’s advocacy of Ēriks Ešenvalds in particular has helped to catapult that fine composer to deserved international fame.

At 28 (It turns out that I’m actually writing these words on his birthday) Jēkabs Jančevskis is fifteen years younger than Ešenvalds but their styles share similar fingerprints such as direct emotional warmth, adventurous experimentation in extended vocal techniques and rigorous consideration in terms of text selection. These three features are much in evidence in the eight sublime works on this new disc. Even more impressive is that each one seems to have been written before Jančevskis hit 25. He is fortunate indeed to enjoy a long-standing working relationship with his colleague Jurģis Cābulis who leads the Riga Cathedral School’s mixed choir in these compelling performances, some of which involve the participation of single instrumentalists or ensembles.

I share my colleague Marc Rochester’s enthusiasm for this disc and rather than repeat his conclusions I will limit myself to selecting a few highlights. While Jančevskis clearly revels in opulent choral textures, I was beyond moved by one of the simplest and briefest pieces here. Ar zvaigžņu kluso gaismu (“Silent Starlight”) was his response (at the tender age of 23) to the 2013 Riga supermarket disaster in which 54 individuals lost their lives. While such terrible events inevitably forge a sense of shared national experience their local provenance might render them purely statistical in the minds of outsiders. Here Jančevskis has made a piece of shattering universal impact with the simplest of means; yet he manages simultaneously to draw the ears of the world to his own little place by referring to the unique, unforgettable colours of the kokle, a strummed wooden instrument whose wooden frame is thought to embody the soul of a deceased person (according to the local mythology). The gently devastating words are drawn from a poem by Ojārs Vācietis which transforms the souls of the departed into starlight, a visible manifestation of absence. In the first half of this little piece the unforgettable pure soprano voice of Katrīna Paula Felsberga emerges with unbearably poignant reassurance for the bereaved from a cloud of wordless velvet. The glittering textures of the kokle then accompanies a moving hymn-like tune, led by the men. Its harmonies are unmistakeably Northern, distantly related perhaps to Sibelius’ Finlandia hymn. Spoken whisperings on the precipice of audibility humanise the memory. The tones of the kokle are aptly haunting. The piece concludes with a final exhalation. Uncharacteristically I felt moved to replay this piece immediately – at the entry of the soprano my mobile serendipitously informed me of the daily tally of British deceased from the pandemic. This painfully affecting miniature is worth the price of the disc on its own; in any case it strikes me as remarkably assured for a composer of 23.

As Marc Rochester states, each of these works has something to say, and Jančevskis seems to have swiftly fashioned the means to say it. Odplyw (‘Ebb-Tide’) is a setting of a brief contemporary Polish poem which muses on the Baltic sources of amber. Its breathy opening textures evoke both wind and water; subsequently Ms Felsberga navigates a solo line which is simultaneously spare and intricate. After another hymn-like episode Jančevskis deploys evocative vocal syllabic sounds which effect a most singular atmosphere. High voices rhapsodise above a robust bass drone. This is magical choral writing – a huge sound used sparingly, with climaxes which manifest both clarity and ripeness in a way that can only truly be realised by young voices. Jančevskis has a real liking for whistling; at times this evokes a glassy halo, here it’s more weather-beaten.

Aeternum is a delicate setting of an aphoristic text whose profundity is in inverse proportion to its brevity. It celebrates 100 years of Latvian independence, but its import surrounds that which connects us – music – rather than the lines in the sand that arbitrarily divide us. The whistling effects here could be the heavenly sounds of tuned wine glasses. Latvian history also inspires the occasionally more grandiose O lux beata Trinitas, specifically with reference to a skirmish from the early 13th century involving Letts and Estonians. Local legend has it that a Lett priest clambered atop a castle wall carrying an unidentified instrument which he used first to enchant the enemy into a reverent silence and thereafter into a peaceful resolution. Jančevskis depicts this incident almost literally; the parallel harmonies of two solo sopranos hovering above a still choral cloud at the beginning is affecting and again almost Sibelian – repeated syllabic jabbings transition into a big, yet intimate sound. The entry of a tenor augurs a martial pulse and a masculine, threatening tread which yields in time to mysterious, unsettling textures incorporating gentle whooping sounds before the parallel harmonies briefly return and hints of a distant organ imply peace. O lux beata Trinitas sounds very demanding but the marvellous Riga choir are obviously used to this composer’s wiles and convey the work thrillingly.
The Button is a setting of a remarkable poem which absolutely merits such precise, thoughtful music. For some reason this is an English translation of words by the Latvian dissident Knuts Skujenieks who was sentenced to seven years imprisonment (for anti-Soviet leanings) in a harsh Moldovan concentration camp in the early 1960s. The sole souvenir of his freedom was literally the shirt on his back with a single button stitched into it by his wife. Needless to say this mundane item turns out to be anything but; at its beginning this is a spare setting knitted together by the gentle threads of saxophones but as organ and percussion begin to get more involved Jančevskis moulds something almost symphonic in scale and successfully realises in sonic form the amplification of the local into the universal. The final section of The Button blazes away movingly over an ominous drum beat and resolves unforgettably and dramatically.

I must amplify Marc Rochester’s enthusiastic comments about When, a complex setting from Romeo and Juliet; it is a stunning piece of choral writing topped off with a magnificently conceived cello part which emerges thrillingly in this recording. However I found the laughter among the complex and emotionally fervent vocalisations in Atsalums rather less jarring than my learned colleague – I really liked the rhythmic hints of what I thought was techno in this incisively written piece. Which only leaves the five-part Mater amabilis, a wholly sincere plea on the part of the composer for clarity of purpose and artistic inspiration. It is superbly delivered; authentic, and consonant without ever feeling saccharine.

The singing of this splendid group, a new addition to Hyperion’s already enviable roster of vocal ensembles is crystalline and heartfelt. The Riga choir can seemingly do symphonically loud and chamber intimate with their eyes shut. They have been superbly prepared by Jurģis Cābulis and Hyperion’s sound is all that could be desired. The composer’s own notes are pithy and interesting, and texts and translations are present and correct. More please!!

Richard Hanlon

Previous reviews: Marc Rochester (Recording of the Month) ~ David Barker

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