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Hyperion Records

CDA67818 - Miškinis: Choral Music
Tree by Charlie Baird (b1955)

Recording details: January 2010
St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: November 2010
DISCID: 13124312
Total duration: 77 minutes 47 seconds


'His music has a timeless and highly atmospheric quality. Textures and nuances are used with great perception … the effect on the listener is best summed up as being one of 'contemplative meditation'. Rupert Gough has wrought wonders with his Egham choristers. Their tone glows warmly, with a firm bass-line and bell-like top soprano and tenor lines. Pitching is spot-on and climaxes are beautifully controlled  … the sumptuous swimming acoustic of St Alban's, Holborn, is perfect for this delicious music' (Gramophone)

'Vytautas Miškinis might be the best thing to happen to choral societies since Morten Lauridsen … the Choir of Royal Holloway sing with excellent intonation and blend' (International Record Review)

'The clarity and translucence of Royal Holloway's young voices, expertly trained and throroughly prepared for this demanding job, ideally suits Miškinis' infinitely subtle art. Gough and his choristers are outstanding … exquisite in their hypnotic contrasts and folk-like purity' (Classic FM Magazine)

Choral Music

Royal Holloway’s debut Hyperion recording (of the Latvian composer Rihards Dubra) received a rapturous response from the critics. Now they have produced a second volume of Baltic delights, turning this time to Lithuania and the sumptuous music of Vytautas Miškinis, the doyen of current Lithuanian choral culture.

His music, while bearing identifiable Lithuanian roots, is a synthesis of different influences carefully shaped and moulded with an experienced understanding of choral orchestration. Like many other Baltic composers of the same generation, Miškinis takes an essentially diatonic approach but with much overlaying of harmonies and coloured cluster-chords. What makes the music unmistakably Lithuanian is the influence of two folk-song genres. The overall effect is luscious, radiant and exotic. This music is passionately performed by these talented young singers and sensitively recorded in a generous church acoustic.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Lithuania, in common with fellow Baltic States Latvia and Estonia, sustains a rich singing tradition, one at the heart of the country’s cultural heritage. This is a choral tradition not confined to churches and concert halls but a part of everyday life and a key part of the national consciousness. A clear indicator of the strength of this phenomenon is the national song festivals drawing upwards of 30,000 participants. Centuries of political and cultural domination from foreign powers largely limited indigenous music-making to rural folk songs. This repression led to the survival of these old genres right into the twentieth century and, as Lithuania began to assert its independence, it was these national songs that drew its people together in an awakening of ethnic consciousness and self-esteem. Throughout the restrictions of Soviet occupation (1940–90), safeguarding the source of folk music’s vitality became art’s most important stimulus, and therefore singing remained central to the cultural life of the country. As time passed the concept of nationalism may have changed but Lithuania’s affinity with folk songs and sense of community through choral singing has remained.

Born in Vilnius in 1954, Vytautas Miškinis is the doyen of current Lithuanian choral culture. For thirty years he has been the artistic director of the award-winning Lithuanian boys’ choir Azuoliukas. It was with this choir that Miškinis began his musical career as a treble aged seven. While still a student he worked as an accompanist and conductor for the choir’s founder Hermanas Perelsteinas before taking over the artistic direction of the choir himself at the age of twenty-five. Since 1979 this ‘little oak tree’ (as the choir’s name translates) has grown into a school of music for 450 young musicians.

Miškinis has always had a broad and eclectic interest in choral music. His lessons in composition, taken independently from the state system, encouraged a greater degree of artistic freedom. His music, while bearing identifiable Lithuanian roots, is a synthesis of different influences carefully shaped and moulded with an experienced understanding of choral orchestration. Like many other Baltic composers of the same generation, Miškinis takes an essentially diatonic approach but with much overlaying of harmonies and coloured cluster-chords. Chords resonate with many perfect fifths and fourths reinforcing the harmonic series. What makes the music unmistakably Lithuanian is the influence of two folk-song genres: one, a homophonic type in which harmonies are created from the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale, and the other an interestingly dissonant contrapuntal type from north-eastern Lithuania called sutartine, in which the individual lines together form a chain of unresolved seconds. Sutartines have been crucial in the reinvention of folk music as high art. Composers such as Bronius Kutavicius (b1932) quickly discovered the interesting parallels between sutartines and new avant-garde ideas filtering in from the rest of post-war Europe.

The so-called ‘Lithuanian Minimalism’ that followed in the 1970s and ’80s drew on these and other old polyphonic forms to create great ritualistic choral cycles immortalizing vanishing folklore. Similar things were also happening in Estonia through the music of Veljo Tormis, while Arvo Pärt conjured up the atmosphere of music from the early church. In every case, the intention was to create an atmosphere of contemplation, a meditative effect that could begin to dissolve the notion of real time.

Repetition permeates much of Miškinis’s music but he is not to be considered a minimalist. Vocal textures are certainly enhanced by a judicious use of carefully controlled aleatoric effects and ostinatos, however coloration of the text remains at the heart of Miškinis’s creative spirit: ‘I do not experiment with the sound. The essential for me is the meaning of the lyrics. The content. For that reason I accept any means of expression that refers to the meaning of a word.’ Lithuania, like its vast neighbour Poland, is largely Catholic. Although brought up a Catholic, Miškinis no longer considers himself a strong believer and yet he is drawn to many liturgical texts for their universal ideals, their ‘unique poetry’.

Dum medium silentium was written in response to a commission from Vocal Ensemble Calycanthus and Pietro Ferrario in 2008. Miškinis creates a hypnotic atmosphere, with the juxtaposition of repetitive rhythmic fragments and sustained lines against the pulse, broken occasionally by a homophonic outburst. This rather lyrical minimalism proves very effective for this setting of the Introit for Sunday within the Octave of Christmas.

The outer contemplative sections of O sacrum convivium are built on small harmonic and melodic fragments and yet a continuous stream of sound is propelled forward over cluster chords and syncopated rhythms. The second half of the text is treated more freely in the middle section, with ‘mens impletur gratia’ set to a quasi-plainsong melody carried upwards through the voice parts. The final section shows considerable skill in the balancing of choral parts as the accompaniment, beginning in the upper voices, subtly descends through the choral range until reaching its conclusion in the luxuriant key of D flat major.

Compared with other liturgical texts, the Pater noster is very much a collective prayer, and Miškinis portrays an atmosphere of communal prayer by building up an elaborate texture of chant-like repetitions. This tightly controlled combination of structured and aleatoric repetitions is very characteristic of the composer’s palette of choral effects. The ten parts are drawn together into immense chords repeated until their weight almost becomes unbearable. This breaks into a multitude of voices in eleven canonical parts before returning a more meditative atmosphere. To conclude, material from the opening forms an undulating hypnotic mantra over which we hear echoing calls of ‘Amen’ from distant soloists. The music serves to remind us that this prayer has been recited continuously by Christians all over the world for two millennia.

The emotional turmoil surrounding the death of Christ, as dramatically depicted in the Fifth Responsory for Good Friday, has inspired many choral composers. For his setting of Tenebrae factae sunt, Miškinis delivers a dramatic narrative. Particularly effective are the lamenting chords for ‘Deus meus’ and, following the angular and chromatic ‘ut quid me dereliquisti’, the serenity of ‘Et inclinato capite, emisit spiritum’. The piece begins and ends in a shroud of darkness weighed down with murky, tonally ambiguous chords.

Neišeik, saulala (Don’t leave me, sun) was written in 2007 for the Latvian Youth Choir Kamer. Miškinis was one of seventeen composers commissioned as part of a large World Sun Songs project. Each composer was asked to consider the impact of the sun in their own lives. Intent on creating a piece imbued with the spirit of Lithuanian folklore Miškinis utilizes a fragment of a familiar Shepherd Song The sun, my mother. This melancholy song is an elderly mother’s prayer for her only son to return after twenty-five years of service in the army. Lithuanian panpipes, called skuduciai, play alongside the voices of the choir providing, the composer states, ‘an acoustic element, not an accompaniment’. The result is a musical ritual which can be developed by visual action from the choir.

Miškinis began setting some of the Seven O Antiphons in 1995 but did not complete the set until 2003. Their uniformity lies in the consistent use of double choir with considerable use of overlaid harmonies. In O Adonai and O Rex gentium the second choir merely provides a harmonic backdrop to the more narrative first choir. By contrast, in O Radix Jesse the first choir simply repeats the phrase ‘O Radix Jesse’ as an echo at the end of each phrase from the second choir. The final section of this antiphon makes clever use of ostinatos with each phrase of slightly different lengths so that the resulting texture alters subtly as the pieces subsides ‘al niente’. Different from the other antiphons is O Oriens, which uses a single choir but with the addition of soprano and tenor soloists singing in octaves for a recapitulation of the opening theme.

Oi šala, šala (Oh, it’s getting cold) is a remarkable example of economy of means—an evocative extended piece emerging from relatively few melodic fragments. The repetition of ‘šala’, with its deliberate emphasis on the ‘sh’ sound, evokes the shivers of a hard winter. This texture stops for ‘Padange nušvito nakti, Patekejo zvaigzdes degti’ (The sky lights up at night, and shines with the rising stars), where three voices echo each other from on high. Another solo voice narrates the next section which has a ritualistic feel with the addition of a bell to mark the end of each phrase. The final line, ‘Ka laposi azuoleli?’, is hard to translate, but relates back to the pagan belief that when ancestors died their souls would live in a tree. The life of a young man is therefore compared to the growing branches of an oak tree. This ancient symbolism is not lost on contemporary Lithuanians, hence the name of the Lithuanian Boys’ Choir, run by Miškinis: Azuoliukas.

O magnum mysterium was written for the tenth anniversary of the Slovenian Ipavska Chamber Choir in 2008. The sense of awe and wonder radiates, almost symmetrically, from the central point of an E to colour the word ‘mysterium’. The harmonies are always colourful but never predictable. At the words ‘Beata virgo’ a reverential and hypnotic chant is established and a solo quartet is introduced into the texture. The concluding ‘Alleluia’ begins as a celebratory refrain before being transformed into a much more subdued affair, coming to rest, inconclusively, on a second-inversion chord.

Miškinis has written no fewer than seven settings of the Ave Maria, each quite different in mood. The second setting, in E major, focuses on simplicity, and there is a reassuring warmth and optimism to this tonality. The music is carried forward by rhythmic embellishments in both melody and accompaniment. The main element of Salve regina is a three-part ostinato figure that pervades the work like a mantra. This overlaying of melodies and ostinatos paints a dreamy picture, broken only by the middle section with its more hymn-like response to the text ‘Et Jesum benedictum fructum ventris tui’.

The third Ave Maria setting is harmonically more probing with some colourful bi-tonality leading to false relations. On arriving at ‘ora pro nobis peccatoribus’ the sopranos break into a joyful reprise of ‘Ave Maria’. Repeated with more vigour and confidence it speaks as a great affirmation of faith.

Miškinis has long held a fascination for the writings of the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore and his Gitanjali (Song Offerings). These writings express a meditative metaphysical outlook, and Miškinis has set a number of these using Tagore’s own English translation. Time is endless was written in 2007 for the Singapore Youth Choir and is a good illustration of the composer’s desire to be led at all times by the text. Using traditional Romantic means of word-painting, he takes an unhurried approach, allowing ample time to contemplate the substance of each line of text. A serene dominant-seventh chord ending the work leaves time hanging in the air.

Rupert Gough © 2010

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