LMIC radio

Vox Clara

Performers

Schola Cantorum Riga
Guntars Prānis
Ieva Nīmane

Recorded

2020

Release date

11.12.2020

Compositions

Res est admirabilis / conductus

Vox clara / hymnus

Benedicamus

Ingrediente Domino / responsorium

Kyrie eleison ymas

Miserere mei / cantus falsobordone

Unicornis captivatur / conductus

Uterus hodie / versus

Veni Sancte Spiritus / antiphona

Plangas cum lacrimis / hymnus

Quasi stella matutina / antiphona

Alleluya alto re di gloria / lauda

Respondemos / cantus

Gaude Maria / sequentia

Description

LMIC 085

This album presents Medieval music – Gregorian chant and various examples of Late Medieval repertoires – that reflects the performance practice in various European cities in the Late Medieval period. This was a time when Gregorian chant still dominated sacred music, although it existed alongside a variety of paraliturgical and secular genres of music in which improvisation and the respective local musical traditions played a very important role. All of these genres constantly interacted with each other. It is a myth that musicians and singers in the Middle Ages performed only what was written in manuscripts. On the contrary, manuscripts often served merely as mnemonic devices, with improvisation playing a major role in the musical practice. In recent years, extensive research and the practice of historically informed performance have shown that it is often precisely what could not be written down in a manuscript that gave music its deepest meaning, expressiveness and subtlety. Only thus did people of the Medieval period arrive at a language of music that was important to them and helped them to live. One of the most important themes to the people of the Medieval period, the Christmas theme, weaves through this entire album. It is presented in its full diversity in Res est admirabilis, Vox clara, Uterus hodie and Gaude Maria. The album features music from several European cities but focuses on the Northern European musical traditions of Hamburg, Riga and Lund as well as the rich heritage of early polyphony in Limoges. In the Middle Ages, each of these cities was distinctive in its cultural expressions, and the musical styles in each also differed. This vivid, diverse musical life of Late Medieval Europe can be sensed and experienced through the contrasts in these recordings. The specific manifestations of music in different European cities could differ greatly from one another. As in traditional music, in Medieval sacred music one and the same chant also sounded different depending on the location. Its sound depended on local musical tastes, traditions, available instruments and archaic polyphony practices as well as the local language, which “appeared” alongside Latin in both sacred and secular music ever more frequently in the Late Medieval period. The recordings on this album include the bagpipes and hurdy gurdy, both documented in Latvian traditional music, as well as the early Latvian language (Veni Sancte Spiritus) and elements of traditional singing. It is the participants’ interpretation of how this music might have sounded in Medieval Riga.

Guntars Prānis

Review

"Choral singing has always been a speciality of the Scandinavian countries, and this collection of medieval chant from Latvia’s Riga, Germany’s Hamburg, Sweden’s Lund, and unexpectedly Limoges in France, is as stylish as one might expect. As the director Guntars Pranis of the vocal group Schola Cantorum Riga points out, it’s a myth that musicians and singers in medieval times only sang what they read in manuscripts; improvisation was central to their art. Christmas is the theme that runs through this CD, and, with the intensely virile sound of the male-voice choir of Riga Cathedral, we can get a vivid idea of what this music would have sounded like half a millennium ago."

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Michael Church
The Independent
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"Whether it’s the arching beauty of the “Veni Creator”, the comfortingly stolid “Pater Noster” or the graceful “Ave Maris Stella”, there’s a sense of plainchant as something immutable, eternal – a language we’ve always known and all share. But a new recording from the award-winning Schola Cantorum Riga reveals a tradition full of exibility and variation, even improvisation – music that, far from being fixed, evolves and adapts to different countries and contexts. The birth of plainchant is the birth of musical notation; the two traditions are so intertwined, so mutually dependent, that it’s hard to conceive a medieval performance tradition that was far from bound by or to those carefully illuminated neumes that decorate the pages of twelfth- and thirteenth century manuscripts. Instead, as Guntars Pranis and his musicians demonstrate here, often these notes were just the starting point for performances that blended ofifcial chant melodies with polyphonic and folk influences, voices with local instrumental textures and accompaniments. 

The ensemble’s home town of Riga (at whose cathedral the Schola Cantorum is the resident male-voice choir) is the geographical centre of a recording that roams across northern Europe from Limoges to Hamburg and Lund in Sweden, offering a musical tour through subtly different styles and colours of chant. 

Any expectations of severe musical simplicity are banished in the opening seconds of the recording. A drum sets up a marching pulse, quickly joined by the buzzing hum of the hurdy-gurdy, whose drone is the anchor for a flighty, bird-like recorder. There’s a processional energy to this “Res est admirabilis” – one of several non liturgical sacred songs that frame the hymns and antiphons included here. 

After the ascetic, white-scrubbed approach of so many British groups to this repertoire, it’s refreshingly relaxed – an attempt to recreate not just the sound but the spirit of works that dissolve distinctions between sacred and secular. The singing itself is soft-edged, cloudy, solo verses delivered with a ballad singer’s fluid phrasing and inection, taking full advantage of the rhythmic freedom built into these works. 

Some of the group’s interventions are subtle: the strange harmonies extrapolated from the familiar “Miserere” by Ieva Nimane’s evocative kokle (a kind of Baltic box zither), the wild instrumental dance that breaks out between verses of the Responsory “Ingrediente Domino”. Others are bolder, like the rustling, and rattling forest of sound effects that set the scene before “Unicornis captivator”, with its vivid descriptions of pelicans, crocodiles, lions and more, and – most striking – the collapse into an echoing Babel of drifting voices that cluster towards the end of “Gaude Maria” in what feels like an extraordinarily modern effect. 

Home to the largest medieval church in the Baltics, Riga also houses the Riga Missal – the first musical document in Latvian history. This fifteenth-century manuscript is the source for one of several premiere recordings included here – the keening “Kyrie eleison ymas”, with its alternating verses of solo and unison chant. Six centuries after monks originally notated it, it’s hard not to feel chills when you hear the city once again filled with the same chant."

Alexandra Coghlan
The Tablet
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"Although in one sense a Christmas disc (many of the texts sing about related subjects), it would be churlish to exclude this lovely disc on the basis we're now in January. Imagining the sounds of medieval Riga, and dispelling any sense of stuffy, voice-bound-to-text performance practice, this is a collection of chants backed by instruments such as the bagpipes, hurdy gurdy and the kokle, a Baltic zither. It is a remarkable adventure.

The performers are the Schola Cantorum Riga the resident vocal group of Riga Cathedral (the largest cathedral of the Baltics); and the disc encompasses repertoire from their home city (in what would then have been known as Livonia rather than Latvia) as well as Hamburg, Lund and Limoges: unexpectedly cosmopolitan, one might suggest. Although we're in a different era, one might suggest this disc as a perfect companion to a previous disc recommended by Classical ExplorerThe Suspended Harp of Babel on ECM, a celebration of the Estonian tradition in the music of Kreek.  

The result of this mixing of instruments and late Medieval chant is spellbinding. The music includes example of elements of the ancient form of traditional Latvian vocal polyphony, Teikšana or saukšana (“saying” or “calling”), as can be heard in Miserere Mei, a Gergorian "cantus falsobordone". Veni Sancte Spiritus  is sung in the early Livonian language, and the ensemble decided to sing the Latin words throughout the album in their local Latvian accent. These are important documents as well as being toe-curlingly beautiful. The "Kyrie eleison ymas" is from Riga Cathedral's 15th-century Riga Missal (Missale Rigense) manuscript. 

Led by Guntars Prānis, himself an expert in his field, this disc celebrates in the liveliest, but also most profound, fashion how liturgical music sat alongside improvisation. The performances just sound alive. By taking music from various locations, we travel across medieval Europe while looking through a decidedly Latvian pair of eyes; it is a journey like no other (it even includes a chant about a unicorn), and is fully worthy of exploration."

Colin Clarke
Classical Explorer