[..] The styles of the composers involved is very wide with backgrounds from classical, folk, pop, rock, underground and electronic music. Each composer took as their theme one of five elements, fire, water, earth, sky, love, though some hew closer to their chosen theme than others. The age range of the composers is wide as well, on this disc we have birth dates from 1939 (Maija Einfelde) to 1992 (Jēkabs Jančevskis), and the two best known names for those outside Lativa are probably Ēriks Ešenvalds and Pēteris Vasks.
When listening to this music, we should perhaps remember the intention of the project.
This is music written to be sung by professionals and amateurs. A number of the pieces on the disc sound tricky indeed, with one of two seeming to have that knack of creating music which is difficult to sing but profoundly satisfying to do so when you get it right! This means that the music is tonal, though different composers adhere to different ideas of what tonality is. There is also an aura of gentle melancholy hanging over the music; for all the celebratory nature of the project, few works on the disc are of the uncomplicated, joyful celebratory nature. Perhaps some of this is a reflection of Latvian folk traditions, because many of the works seem to evoke what little I know Latvian folk music.
The disc opens with Ēriks Ešenvalds' Rasa (The Dew) which very much sets the tone, combining gentle melancholy with a memorable tune. The final work on the disc is by the youngest composer, Jēkabs Jančevskis. His Aeternum has an elegiac feel to is, but with striking multi-voiced textures and some wonderful high sopranos, so that the result is rather memorable. Pēteris Vasks's piece Mūsu kalni (Our Mountains) is gentle, almost prayerful and homophonic with a slow build to it.
Other pieces in the recital which caught my ear include Andris Dzenītis No debesīm (From the Sky) with its striking textures created from multiple voices, mutterings and note clusters, and Rihards Zaļupe's Sauciens vējā (A Call in the Wind), which mixes catchy rhythms with striking textures, whilst Anna Ķirse's Bieza migla zemi sedza (A Thick Fog Covered the Earth) is set in a distinctive harmonic sound-world combining chant-like elements with eerie high lines for the sopranos, and Juris Kulakovs (who founded the legendary Lativan rock group Perkons) creates lovely transparent vocal textures in Mežā. Nakts... / In the Forest. Night....
What impresses overall with this group of works is not so much the variety, but the sophisticated way the different composers have handled their vocal forces. These pieces will present a variety of satisfying challenges to performers, and as listeners we can enjoy the sheer diversity of vocal textures which this disc presents.
The performances are uniformly excellent, and the choir seems to be very much in sympathy with the different styles and genres of the music. Nothing feels forced, and overall you cannot but admire the stunning vocal control and beauty of sound.
Māris Sirmais said of the project, “The works composed in this initiative are dedicated to the best amateur choirs in Latvia and will introduce the world to the high quality of Latvian music. The goal was to create real and lasting spiritual values that will live on long after our country’s centenary. We can take pride in the fact that such a relatively small nation has not only so many composers creating such high-calibre music, but also choirs that can perform it at such a high level.” Quite so.
"18.11.2018 marked the centenary of the Latvian Declaration of Independence. The State Choir 'Latvija' and its artistic director Māris Sirmais (also acting here) took the anniversary as an opportunity to commission 77 composers from their country to write songs for choir a cappella, which can be sung by both professional and amateur choirs. The only requirement: the songs should be "inspired by one of the five elements - fire, water, earth, air, love", as it says in the booklet. Over a period of three years, all these works were performed in five concerts. Now 16 of these 77 songs can be heard on the album. Many composers who have long been renowned beyond Latvia - Vasks, Einfelde, Ešenvalds, Dzenītis - and many who are (still!) rather unknown internationally - Kulakovs, Sauka, Kontauts, Tiguls - are represented with songs that last on average three to five minutes. "We may be proud that a comparatively small nation like ours has so many composers, all of whom are capable of writing music of such high quality," Sirmais says in the booklet. "And we may also be proud to have so many choirs singing these works at this level." And we listeners of this magnificent album may and must acknowledge without envy: true! For what the State Choir 'Latvija' tickles out of these jubilee gifts of its compatriots in terms of pure beauty and the highest art of singing is simply magnificent."
To mark the Republic of Latvia’s centenary, (declared in 1918; recognised in 1921; restored in 1991 after the end of Soviet rule) the State Choir Latvija and its artistic director, Māris Sirmais, created a special and lasting gift to Latvia: a new repertoire of choral pieces for professional and amateur choirs. To this end they established a creative laboratory in which 77 composers wrote new music for choir. The composers of the contributions comprise a diverse range of talents, from those considered contemporary classics to those still studying and those with backgrounds in other genres. Each composer chose one of five elements as inspiration-fire, water, earth, sky and love-and related to it as they wished.
The present celebratory CD offers a representative selection of the project’s fruits, with pieces by Ešenvalds and Vasks among others. It’s an imaginative project and typical of a country where choral music is something of a national pastime. The performances are uniformly excellent, though the engineering might be a bit dry for some tastes.
www.rhinegold.co.uk / choir and organ review
So klingt erworbene, wahre Lettlandliebe: «Vor vier Jahren änderte sich mein Leben für immer, als ich eine Aufführung des Jugendchors Kamēr unter der Leitung des Gründers Māris Sirmais hörte», erinnert sich Christopher Walsh, Chorleiter aus den USA und mittlerweile Sänger im Lettischen Staatschor: «Der Auftritt war akkurat, intensiv und emotional und ich wollte mehr davon hören.» Walsh trat den Gegenbesuch in Lettland an, besuchte Proben von Kamēr und vom Lettischen Staatschor.
«Alles, was ich über Lettland gelernt habe, seine Musik und die Menschen dort, brachten mich dazu, noch tiefer zu gehen», so Walsh. Er absolvierte einen Lettisch-Kurs und gründete, zurück an der Miami University, einen lettischen Chor: «Wir näherten uns der Musik mit Liebe und Respekt – eine Erfahrung, die ich nie vergessen werde. Aber es gibt keinen Ersatz für das Wahre.» In den USA fehle «die kulturelle Tiefe (...) und das gesellschaftliche Interesse, Chormusik zu fördern, wie sie in Lettland gefördert wird», so Walsh. 2015 wanderte er ins Baltikum aus, «um Teil dieser Chormagie zu werden». Er studierte bei Māris Sirmais, fand eine Stelle als Chorleiterassistent und auch darüber hinaus «alle Türen offen, um Lettlands kulturelle Schönheit selbst zu erfahren». Schließlich stieß der Tenor als festes Mitglied zum Lettischen Staatschor.
Dessen jüngste CD «Aeternum», 2020 in Riga unter Māris Sirmais aufgenommen, ist ein beeindruckendes Statement für die nationale Kultur. Sie vereint 16 Chorsätze lettischer KomponistInnen der Gegenwart. So brillant, flammend und makellos präzise gesungen, machen sie jene Magie fühlbar, die lebensverän- dernd wirken kann. Große Namen wie Pēteris Vasks (*1946) und Ēriks Ešenvalds (*1977) stehen neben hierzulande we- niger bekannten wie der im Staatschor singenden Irīna Mihailovska (*1988). Ihr «Uguns rituāls» fußt auf einem lettischen Volkslied über ein sommerliches Feuer- ritual. Ein magisches Stück, dessen Soli für Frauen und Männer das besonde- re Timbre baltischer Stimmen hören lassen. Rihards Zaļupe (*1983) stellt in «Sauciens vējā» (Ruf im Wind) Soli in Kontrast zum Chor und erzeugt dabei eine frappierende Weite und Intensität. Der romantische Klang etwa bei Uldis Marhilēvičs (*1957) oder Vilnis Šmīdbergs (*1944) mag in westlichen Ohren süßlich anmuten – für Letten ist er Teil einer selbstbewussten, ehrlichen Sprache, verwirklicht mit hochkultivierten, bezwingend schönen Stimmen.
Noch einmal Christopher Walsh, der heute in Riga lebt und nach Heirat einer Lettin Kristofers Volšs Sinka heißt: «Chormusik steht für die besten Aspekte dessen, was es heißt, Lettisch zu sein: Die Arbeitsethik erfordert es, jede Darbietung makellos zu gestalten. Die Leidenschaft rührt einen Sänger zu Tränen.» Bei diesem vielfarbigen Album kann das auch den Hörenden passieren.
Chorzeit – das Vokalmagazin
The centenary of Latvia, celebrated in 2018, inspired many artistic and cultural projects. Among them was an invitation from conductor Māris Sirmais and the State Choir Latvija to one hundred different Latvian composers to compose a new choir work. The only requirements were that the text should correspond to one of five ‘elements’ – fire, water, earth, sky, or love, and the work be at a level that an amateur choir would be able to perform it.
Seventy-seven composers answered the call, and all the resulting choir works were performed in concert by Latvija and Sirmais, throughout 2017 and 2018. In 2021, a selection of the works was released on the CD Aeternum. Over the course of sixteen choir compositions, from a varied group of composers including both well-known names and those still early in their careers, the State Choir Latvija reveals the many facets and layers of Latvian choir music.
Among the composers are names that have helped raise Latvia’s profile in the field of choir music in recent decades. Ēriks Ešenvalds, known for his skill with melody and harmony, contributed the gently flowing ‘Rasa’, with poetry by Rasa Maija Armale, who wrote a poem inspired by her own name Rasa (or ‘Dew’). Pēteris Vasks provided the somber ‘Mūsu kalni’ (or ‘Our Mountains’), based on a poem by Knuts Skujenieks, which is slightly ironically titled – in that Latvia does not actually have mountains. However, as per the poem, Latvia does have lofty and noble clouds, which are Latvia’s mountains.
There are several younger composers represented on this collection as well. Jēkabs Jančevskis’ dramatic, mysterious ‘Aeternum’, with poetry by Pēteris Brūveris, with its repeated phrase ‘mēs katrs sevī nesam mūžību’ (we each carry eternity within us), is at once a broad view of eternity and deeply personal. Anna Ķirse found inspiration in Latvian folk songs for her mystical ‘Bieza migla zemi sedza’. The folk song texts, full of rich, colorful imagery of the sun, fog, and clouds, inspires an equally rich musical setting for this ancient text. Irīna Mihailovska’s appropriately fiery ‘Uguns rituāls’, also based on Latvian folk texts, is full of mysticism and mythology, and alternates between energetic sparks and contemplative melodies.
Many of the composers are from a more academic background, but there are also representatives from the field of popular music. ‘Piesaukšana’, with music by Jānis Aišpurs from the rock group The Sound Poets, with poetry by Ojārs Vācietis, is inspirational and stirring, with Aišpurs’ music bringing an almost tangible electricity to Vācietis’ words of hope for the Latvian people. Juris Kulakovs, of the legendary rock group Pērkons, offers the tender and gentle ‘Mežā. Nakts…’, text by Jānis Audzespiedurs. The composition is like a lullaby, and the words describe night descending on a forest. Uldis Marhilēvičs, the author of many popular Latvian rock songs throughout the decades, along with prolific rock lyricist Guntars Račs, deliver the patriotic ‘Mēs esam’, a promise to always be with Latvia.
Many other distinguished and illustrious Latvian composers are also featured in this collection. The choir works include Raimonds Tiguls’ haunting ‘Griezes dziesma’, Andris Kontauts’ tragic ‘Jūras māte, Jūras māte, valdi savas kalponītes’, Maija Einfelde’s emotionally direct and honest ‘Krāsas’, as well as works by Valts Pūce, Andris Dzenītis, Rihards Zaļupe, Vilnis Šmīdbergs, and Ansis Sauka.
As a birthday gift, a collection of seventy-seven new choir songs is a particularly generous and memorable one. Latvian composers from all over the world contributed to this impressive endeavor and added even more riches to an already impressive national collection. Though Aeternum collects just a selection of those works, over the sixteen works contained on the album, the depth and diversity of Latvian choir music is fully apparent. As performed by the State Choir Latvija and conductor Māris Sirmais, this collection provides a vivid, picturesque celebration of both Latvia’s centenary and the exceptional Latvian choir music repertoire.