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Hyperion Records

CDA67747 - Baltic Exchange
About 2500 Tigers (2008) by Charlie Baird (b1955)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67747

Recording details: August 2008
Ely Cathedral, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: February 2010
Total duration: 67 minutes 34 seconds

'A fascinating collection of choral works … centring on a Mass setting by Latvian Uģis Prauliņš … probably the single most impressive moment in the work is the end of the Credo, whose increasing waves of spoken affirmation of faith are haloed by bell-like choral roulades … Einfelde's music is altogether more introverted, darker than that of Prauliņš but beautifully crafted and jewel-like … [Angelis suis Dominis and Pater noster by Miškinis] are works of absolutely luminous beauty' (Gramophone)

'The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge enjoys the urgent heartbeat of this music … Missa Rigensis contains many wonders, including a buoyant Gloria which vanishes magically into the long acoustic perspectives of the Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral, where this disc was most sensitively produced and engineered  … Stephen Layton conducts this music with all the rigour, colour and craft characteristic of his work' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Stephen Layton conducts vital and immaculate performances. These works must be quite taxing and they’re not always as simple or as straightforward as they may sound. The singing is a pure joy from first to last. The recording lends an appropriately reverberant aura to the music. This splendid release perfectly complements Hyperion’s disc devoted to Dubra’s choral music, enthusiastically reviewed here a few months ago (Hail, Queen of Heaven). This disc will appeal strongly to all lovers of imaginative choral music, but others—I am sure—will find much to relish' (MusicWeb International)

'Soaring melodies, folklike tunes, drones with religious gravity, and stylized speech are all encompassed by these works, the biggest among them being Uģis Prauliņš' Missa Rigensis—one of the most original and personal settings of the Mass text imaginable. Best of all, this is a disc to live with: There's much to enjoy on first hearing, but all the pieces have dramatic new revelations on subsequent encounters' (The Philadelphia Inquirer, USA)

Baltic Exchange

With choral music at the heart of the musical life of the Baltics it is not surprising that the medium has been a central preoccupation for many of their composers. A degree of isolation from international trends in new music (frequently turning into outright proscription) meant that the centre of gravity for composers in the west of the Soviet Union was very different from that of their colleagues beyond the Iron Curtain. And while there is certainly no such thing as a pan-Baltic style—this recording offers only a glimpse of the choral riches to be found in these three tiny countries—all the composers on the disc share a number of characteristics: a sure-footed handling of choral orchestration, lucidity of texture, a pragmatic use of ‘avant-garde’ effects (shorn of their ideological baggage), a fondness for cluster-chords and diatonically saturated harmony, and the frequent use of ostinatos.

Stephen Layton has single-handedly brought many of these composers to the attention of audiences and choirs in the West—and through his sensitive and inspirational direction, has won many fans for this repertoire. Together with his brilliant young choir, who sing this repertoire with ‘passion and purity’, he is the ideal guide to this beautiful and enchanting music.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Singing lies at the heart of not just the musical, but the social and ritual life of the Baltic states. Important occasions, both private and public, are inevitably marked by the singing of songs. One might be forgiven for thinking that every second person in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is a member of a choir: amateur choral singing is taken very seriously and is of a very high standard, and several of the professional groups in the region must be counted among the great choirs of the world.

For most of their history the Baltic nations were under occupation; when ordinary people had little access to education or professional music-making, singing (which is, after all, the most fundamental form of musical expression) was the one thing that couldn’t be denied them. As a result a rich repertory of folk songs evolved which still survives today. (In Latvia alone, for example, more than one million texts and over 30,000 melodies have been identified.) This is very much a living tradition—a great many of these songs are known and loved (and sung) by people from all walks of life, for even now they carry great emotional and cultural resonance.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, during the first National Reawakening, mass song festivals were established in all three countries and these are still held every few years, bringing together thousands of performers in specially built amphitheatres to sing to audiences numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In the late 1980s these song festivals played a crucial role in strengthening a sense of national identity and aspiration and as a focus for political resistance to the Soviet tyranny. (This so-called ‘Singing Revolution’ is fascinatingly documented in Juris Podnieks’ film Krustcelš (‘Homeland’).) In 2003 UNESCO officially recognized the song and dance festivals of the Baltic countries as ‘masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’.

With choral music at the heart of the musical life of the Baltics it is not surprising that the medium has been a central preoccupation for many of their composers. A degree of isolation from international trends in new music (frequently turning into outright proscription) meant that the centre of gravity for composers in the west of the Soviet Union was very different from that of their colleagues beyond the Iron Curtain; such (thoroughly digested) influences as may be detected tend to come from Poland and Russia, from folk song and early music, rather than from Darmstadt or IRCAM. And while there is certainly no such thing as a pan-Baltic style—this recording offers only a glimpse of the choral riches to be found in these three tiny countries—all the composers on the disc share a number of characteristics: a sure-footed handling of choral orchestration, lucidity of texture, a pragmatic use of ‘avant-garde’ effects (shorn of their ideological baggage), a fondness for cluster-chords and diatonically saturated harmony, and the frequent use of ostinatos.

This programme begins with the Missa Rigensis by Ugis Praulinš, which was written for the great Riga Dom Boys’ Choir and premiered at Easter 2003 in the vast acoustic of Riga’s medieval cathedral. As a child Praulinš was for many years a member of the choir (then known as the Choir of the Emils Darzinš Music School) where his contemporaries included two leading lights of Latvian choral music, the conductors Martinš Klišans and Maris Sirmais. Alongside his formal studies in composition at the Music Academy in Riga Praulinš also played in rock bands in the 1970s and 1980s; for several years he was a sound engineer at Latvian Radio where he undertook pioneering work with folk music, and since then his career has embraced music for film and television, large-scale ‘crossover’ pieces, a full-length ballet and a substantial body of concert music. These various facets of the composer’s practice all feed into the Mass, generating an integrated musical language that is direct and immediate, referential yet completely personal. Praulinš’s intention was to compose a work in the spirit of the great Renaissance Masses, ‘without overwhelming force or volume’, and the result is a piece equally suited to concert or liturgical performance. There is a freshness of response to these age-old words at every turn, yet as much as it is a meticulous and imaginative setting of the text, Missa Rigensis is also a piece about the choral medium itself, and about other settings of the rite.

The diversity and resourcefulness of vocal scoring throughout are striking. The declamatory supplication of the Kyrie is both eternal and modern in its added-note richness, while the sotto voce keening that ends the movement is shockingly potent. The dancing, glistening opening of the Gloria owes as much to rock music in its syncopated canonic build-up as it does to any older polyphonic tradition, the dramatic antiphonal exchanges at ‘Domine Deus’ have an ancient, hieratic quality and the return of a more outgoing music at ‘Quoniam tu solus’ reaches a climax of near-hysterical joy before bell-tone pedal notes herald a melismatic series of Amens.

The pulsing clusters that open the Credo are a powerful symbol of the urgency of belief. A mosaic of varied textures follows—joyful quasi-Baroque roulades, chant-inflected canons over open-fifth drones (a haunting moment of stasis), anguished overlapping chromatic sighs at ‘passus est’; and the pointillist, off-beat figure at ‘Crucifixus’ is both a graphic representation of the driving-in of nails and at the same time built into a groove-based ostinato. The movement ends with a soaring pan-consonant choral carillon, repeated over and over again, while another group of voices whispers the final lines of the text with ever-increasing fervour. The brief Sanctus begins with an awed hush and concludes with exultant ‘swung’ Hosannas and a final chord that is deliciously unexpected. The Agnus Dei achieves no easy resolution, the uncertainty of its final bars unwinding into a Post-Communion where long-breathed vocalise underpins an ad lib spoken prayer (in this instance the ‘Actus caritatis’). The effect is both theatrical and numinous, as the public face of the music slowly dissolves into inwardness and deep repose.

‘Music and love explain everything’, says Ugis Praulinš, with characteristic generosity and optimism. His fellow-Latvian Maija Einfelde has a more pessimistic world-view: ‘Life is not that beautiful, that I would be able to write beautiful music.’ Yet her music is beautiful, in its dark luminosity and austere concentration; it often bears a sorrowful countenance, but speaks of a great and compelling humanity.

The daughter of an organ-builder and an organist, Einfelde was born in Valmiera, near the Estonian border, where she felt the horrors of the Soviet occupation particularly deeply. Always something of an outsider in Latvian music she has patiently and painstakingly gone her own way, finally gaining international recognition in 1997 when she won the Barlow Endowment for Music competition for her Aeschylus cantata Pie zemes talas … (‘At the Edge of the Earth…’).

Written in 2003 Cikls ar Frica Bardas dzeju (‘A cycle of Fricis Barda poems’) comprises three settings of one of Latvia’s best-loved writers. Barda, who died in 1919 at the age of thirty-nine, was one of a group of poets who turned their back on realism in favour of a higher synthesis of romanticism and naturalism. Einfelde responds to these pantheistic miniatures with music of quiet integrity and intensity, the shifting modal harmony flecked with chromaticism, the choral textures immaculately sifted and weighed. Here there is no obvious word-illustration, no overt drama, for like the Latvian landscape this is music painted in ‘grey, green, brown and the colour of the sun’.

After Maija Einfelde’s songs of the earth, we have Urmas Sisask’s music of the spheres. One of Estonia’s leading (and most prolific) composers, Sisask is also a dedicated amateur astronomer. Living in a small town in the west of the country he operates a musical observatory tower and planetarium where he gives lecture-concerts and observes the stars and the heavens. There is something of the shaman about Sisask: ‘My mission is to learn the harmony of the musical instrument of the universe and to make it audible to the people. Thus I do not consider myself a composer; my job is just to find and write down the existing music.’ The result is what he calls ‘astro-music’, a compositional language that is at once atavistic and scientific, born of both intuition and methodology: alongside a purely instinctive response to his astronomical discoveries he has devised a pentatonic scale whose pitches are arrived at by regarding the rotation of celestial bodies as an oscillation of fixed frequencies, and this five-note mode underpins much of his work.

Benedictio is typical of Sisask’s music in the luminous clarity of its textures and the fresh simplicity of its harmony. The piece is in two parts: in the first, neo-primitive bare fifths in earthy compound metres are overlaid with delicate melodic tendrils and explosive dyads. The second part is more extended, its workings more obsessive. A single line of text is sung again and again and again like a mantra. The basses’ initial two-bar ground is heard a full twenty-nine times. This is ecstatic music—a cosmic dance of great ritual power, its hypnotic, incantatory repetitions a vividly contemporary re-imagining of primordial runic song.

The reinvention of folk song as art (particularly of the polyphonic rounds found only in the northwest of the country) and the use of repetition to generate large spans of music were also the basis of what, in the 1970s, became known as Lithuanian Minimalism. Initially quite distinct from the American variety in both origin and intention, the work of Lithuanian minimalists eventually took on some of the characteristics of their transatlantic contemporaries. There are strong hints of this in the music of Vytautas Miškinis. Since 1985 Miškinis has been a member of the choral conducting department at the Academy of Music in Vilnius, and has a busy and distinguished career as a choral director throughout Lithuania and beyond, as well as finding time to compose over 500 pieces. In 2002 he was Lithuania’s most internationally performed composer.

Angelis suis Deus was written as a fortieth birthday present for Stephen Layton and is an immaculately crafted miniature. The neat ternary structure consists of, effectively, three mini-passacaglias, the repeating harmonic and rhythmic cycles of the tenors and basses being overlaid with chordal pulsation and delicious melodic interplay. It is a simple and approachable piece, the flattened sixths and sevenths of its harmony deftly skirting sentimentality, and the composer eschews a word-by-word response to the text in favour of a quietly pervasive air of gentle exultation.

Exultation of an altogether more flamboyant kind is the subject of Laudibus in sanctis. Specially written for this recording and dedicated to Stephen Layton, it is another example of Ugis Praulinš’s undoctrinaire approach to composition, where ‘everything is possible and nothing is absolute’, an open-hearted attitude Praulinš attributes to his background in rock music. Also from rock music, surely, comes the insistent rhythmic drive of much of the music, while the filigree ornamentation is decidedly Baroque. Baroque, too, is the cast of this extended setting of Psalm 150 as a multi-sectional cantata, as are the sustained antiphonal writing and the solo/tutti exchanges. Yet for all its eclecticism of reference the piece has a compelling unity of purpose which reflects the unceasing joyfulness of the words. The sturdy opening pages are an exhaustive and exhilarating exploration of A minor; throughout the piece the chords are frequently of massive density, yet are never opaque, and for the final exhortation (‘Let everything in the world that feeds upon the air of heaven’) the composer summons up music of dazzling brilliance and abandon.

Like the Credo from Praulinš’s Missa Rigensis, Vytautas Miškinis’s Pater noster opens with pulsing cluster-chords, but here the effect is hushed and expectant. Gradually, unsynchronized entries in the lower parts build a static, aleatoric texture whose glowing E minor modality is subtly piqued by G sharps from the basses. The mood is prayerful and meditative. There is one ecstatic fortissimo outburst but elsewhere the dynamic rarely rises above pianissimo; the gentle pulsation is ever-present and, shepherded by a lone soprano’s endlessly repeated Amens, the work eventually recedes into inaudibility.

In the reverberating silence the last word, like the first, should go to Ugis Praulinš: ‘That which moves you is what endures. This is the kind of music I strive for.’ All the music on this disc is without doubt moving (and much more besides), and like the resilience of the Baltic people in the face of intolerable oppression, it will surely endure.

Gabriel Jackson © 2010

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