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Veljo TORMIS (1930-2017)
Two songs after Ernst Enno (1997/8) [9.33]
Rytis MAŽULIS (b.1961)
Canon solus (1998) [5.40]
Pēteris VASKS (b.1946)
Litene (1993) [11.19]
Andris DZENĪTIS (b.1978)
Four Madrigals by e e cummings (2006) [18.04]
Justė JANULYTĖ (b.1982)
Plonge (2015) [12.49]
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Dopo la Vittoria (1996/8) [13.18]
Ja ma kuulsin hääle (2017) [7.30]
Séverine Ballon (cello)
SWR Vokalensemble/Marcus Creed
rec. Ev. Kirche Stuttgart Gaisburg, 13 July 2019
SWR CLASSIC SWR19108BD Blu-ray [82 mins]

As British listeners and viewers of the Proms will recognise, one of the great advantages of the provision of choral music on the screen is the availability of simultaneous subtitles. There may continue to be arguments about the necessity for these in live performances in the opera house, for example, but there can surely be no doubt that the provision of the words on screen for an audience is especially valuable in choral music, where the words – with the best will and application in the world – are frequently difficult to discern, and almost certainly impossible to understand in the context of any but the most basic of sentences. It struck me that with the music on this Blu-Ray – almost all of it totally unfamiliar, and mostly based on elaborately poetic texts – the provision of simultaneous subtitles would add a whole new dimension to the musical experience to the mutual enrichment of both.

Unfortunately this opportunity has been comprehensively and incomprehensibly missed. None of the texts – in Estonian, Latvian, Latin, Italian, French and English – are even subtitled in their original languages, let alone provided with translations. We are given a booklet which provides the original texts together with translations into German and English where appropriate; but to follow these makes it necessary for the listener to take their eyes off the screen and follow closely the material in the booklet, where it is not always clear in the originals where precisely we are (and that applies particularly to such obscure languages as Estonian and Latvian). Even in the settings of e e cummings it is often impossible to decipher where in the individual verses we have reached. And if the listener is forced to such extreme measures to keep track, what on earth is the point of having the visual element at all?

Not that the visual element is that exciting, either. The performance in a modern German church does not lend much scope for anything other than shots of individual members or sections of the choir; some play is made with a wall mural depicting Biblical scenes which have little or no relevance to the works being performed. Much aggravation is also provided by a member of the audience seated immediately behind the conductor, who begins by appearing to be asleep and then fidgets, persistently leafing through his programme book without apparently reading it, passing it backwards and forwards to his companion seated next to him, glancing around to look at other members of the audience, and so on. One would not normally expect in a review to comment upon a single individual in the audience, but the fact that the hall lighting lends him such prominence, and the fact that he seems to be providing more physical movement than anyone other than the conductor himself, makes him worthy of comment. One almost regrets the fact that at the end, with a barely disguised haste, he gets to his feet and hastily leaves the concert hall, his unfortunate companion dragging behind him while the rest of the audience are still looking for their bags and coats.

This is all the more annoying because the music, and its performance, is so good. Professional choirs can sometimes give the impression of coolness, approaching all music with a view to technical perfection without engaging with the dramatic elements in the text (even some operatic choruses are not immune to this). That is certainly not the case here. Even in the basic simplicity of Rytis Mažulis’s minimalistic Canon solus and Justė Janulytė’s Plonge with its almost static cello solo there is a warmth and richness in the sound which totally avoids any sense of singers moving from one carefully placed note to the next. The music of Veljo Tormis and Arvo Pärt is comparatively better-known, and the singers clearly relish the warmth of the melodic phrases common to both composers. The Latin setting towards the end of Pärt’s Dopo la Vittoria is delivered with a sense of particularly rapt beauty that tugs at the heart-strings.

It might have been expected that Litene by Pēteris Vasks would fall into the same style; but this is a comparatively early work by this composer, and far removed from his later more lyrical expressiveness. Instead we are given a whole raft of modernistic choral devices familiar from composers such as Ligeti and Penderecki: clusters of close harmonies, slowly sustained glissandi, and so on, in a text of quite unexpected violence from this source. The longest work on this disc consists of the Four Madrigals by e e cummings sung in the original English and set by Andris Dzenītis. These are more conventional in style, but manage to leaven the still contemplation of the poetry with some lightness of touch, as in may i… with its delectably subtle depiction of the nervous man attempting sexual intercourse with his partner. But, again, this is music that would have benefited from the provision of English subtitles so that the listener could really enter into the joke.

What adds insult to injury with this disc is the fact that this performance is not even complete. This whole concert is already available on a 2019 CD, without the visual distraction of the audience, but with a whole additional work in the shape of a thirteen-minute piece by Maija Einfelde (saving time by cutting out the applause). The disc comes similarly supplied with texts and translations into German (although not, apparently, English). It seems, apart from some brief mentions in the German choral press, to have escaped wider critical notice until earlier this year, when Raymond Tuttle gave it a highly enthusiastic review in Fanfare. Under the circumstances anyone interested in the marvellous choral music currently being written in the Baltic states will inevitably give preference to the audio recording, especially since the video adds little or nothing to the experience. It could have been so different, with a little imagination.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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