"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."
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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."
"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 Explorer: The 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."