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Two opulent choral masterpieces by Richard Strauss frame an eclectic programme from one of Europe’s most highly acclaimed choirs. The name of the young Slovenian composer Matej Kastelic may still be relatively little known, but the title track Credo / I believe is simply extraordinary, and demands to be heard.
‘We shall not reject the old rules of harmony and of form; let us remember them constantly, whether to observe them, or to augment them, or to add to them some others still older … or more recent.’
This exhortation appears in the first chapter of Olivier Messiaen’s short book The technique of my musical language (Leduc, Paris, 1944; English translation by John Satterfield). Arising in a preamble to Messiaen’s detailed exposition of his own methods, the quoted remark has a more universal resonance, acknowledging as it does the perennial sifting through which composers of all generations selectively harness, adapt or reject time-honoured principles formerly seen as axiomatic.
A key aspect of this sifting process is the handling of dissonant harmonies within a wider vocabulary of chords. In the sixteenth century, despite many creative instances of rule-bending, composers generally observed the principle that a dissonance was subject to a tripartite process of preparation (planting the dissonant note in readiness), suspension (moving the rest of the harmony against the dissonant note) and resolution (moving the dissonant note, usually downwards, to rehabilitate it within a consonant chord). This is what lent to sixteenth-century polyphony its tidal quality of rising tension followed by ebbing release.
Fast-forward to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and the relative proliferation of dissonant harmonies has thrown into question the fundamental notion of what is dissonant and what is consonant. While it remains possible to adopt the sixteenth century’s tripartite process of preparation–suspension–resolution, the dogmatic necessity to do so has largely evaporated, as the listening ear has adjusted itself to perceive euphonious harmony in chords once considered egregiously rule-breaking. A take-it-or-leave-it approach has arisen. While we can still detect Messiaen’s ‘upholding of the old rules’, the ways in which they may be ‘observed, augmented or added to with things still older’ have become too many and too varied to classify. Counterpoint comes and goes; tectonic plates may shift, allowing one densely massed chord to emerge out of the shadow of another like a photographic image going in and out of focus. The tidal sense of escalating and ebbing tension is sometimes hard to discern, or else replaced by complete harmonic stasis. Often the composer’s informing genetic memory is not of choral forces singing sixteenth-century textures, but of the more recent evolution of the symphony orchestra and the textures of which it is capable, with foreground gesture and detail often playing transiently across the surface of a static or slower-moving harmonic backdrop. ‘Orchestrating’ is no longer confined to the orchestra: instead, a composer such as Richard Strauss may mix and match the permutations of unison doubling between two or more choral parts, simply in the interests of allowing one strand in the texture more prominence than the others. The extremities of pitch required of singers increase significantly, ranging from subterranean depths to stratospheric heights. With this comes the possibility of expanding the common chord across more octaves, as if the performers were not singers but the woodwind or brass section of an orchestra.
These characteristics are all apparent in the eclectic yet intriguingly unified programme presented here by the State Choir Latvija.
Richard Strauss completed his Deutsche Motette on 22 June 1913 at his villa in the Bavarian Alpine resort town of Garmisch. His fame had been cemented in December 1905 by the opera Salome, a succès de scandale if ever there was one, the proceeds from which had enabled the composer to build his home. The further opera Der Rosenkavalier had been scarcely less successful at its Dresden premiere in January 1911, receiving London and New York premieres in January and December 1913 respectively. Meanwhile, Ariadne auf Naxos had been performed in Stuttgart in October 1912. The Deutsche Motette coincided with work on Eine Alpensinfonie, conceived for a massive orchestra and achieving what the late Michael Kennedy aptly described as ‘a Brucknerian evocation of the grandeur of the Alps’ (visible from Strauss’s home). It is therefore perhaps no surprise that the majestic spirit of Bruckner’s sacred choral music seems to inform the Motette, whose dense chordal agglomerations feel like an extension of orchestral thinking.
For his text, Strauss chose an untitled poem from Weihestunden (‘Hours of consecration’) in the volume Hymnen (‘Hymns’) by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). Rückert has tended to be rather dismissively regarded in literary circles and worked primarily as professor of oriental languages (allegedly master of thirty of them) at the Universities of Erlangen and Berlin. However, his importance to composers is evident in the list of those who set his verse; this includes Schubert, Robert and Clara Schumann, Brahms, Bruch, Wolf, Mahler, Zemlinsky and a host of others.
Scored for dauntingly extravagant forces, the Deutsche Motette opens in subdued hymn-like fashion, but soon sends its soprano and tenor soloists to stratospheric heights of pitch. The music reaches a radiant first climax in the key of E flat. A recurrent feature of the texture is the manner in which the soloists project more mobile motifs across a relatively static choral surface; but the stasis is offset by continual pivot notes or chords that send the harmony elliptically into unexpected territory. The rhythmic character of the music becomes more diverse and more animated with the words ‘O lass im feuchten Hauch … Nicht sprossen’ before breaking into flowing triplets. ‘O zeig’ mir, mich zu erquicken’ launches a lengthy passage of elaborate fugal writing in which the music migrates freely between sostenuto long lines and the feeling of a processional march. The fugal subject dominates the rest of the work and one senses the legacy of the Alpensinfonie as the surmounting of each sonic peak opens up a fresh vista of the next. Sending the lowest basses to subterranean depths and the soprano soloist to the uppermost limits of her register, Strauss conjures seemingly limitless vertical spaces in a sustained epilogue that recalls such perorations as the ending of his tone poem Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and transfiguration’, 1888-89).
Der Abend sets a text by Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) for forces no less opulent than those of the Deutsche Motette. Within the composer’s Opus 34 it is paired with an earlier setting of another poem by Rückert. Broadly similar to the Motette in rhythmic character and texture, Der Abend opens with hymn-like chordal textures unfolding beneath a sustained high G which persists throughout the first twenty bars by being passed between the four soprano parts. A brief climax leads to one of Strauss’s trademark sidelong shifts of tonality, into B flat major, and triplet figures enliven the surface of the music in its middle stages, evoking the sun setting over a calm sea. Despite passages of rhapsodically imitative polyphony, the informing approach is often that of Strauss the orchestrator, with multiple unison doublings used to reinforce salient melodic lines. The music rediscovers its initial G major tonality before eventually finding safe harbour in a tranquil E major conclusion.
The Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström studied musicology and history of art at the University of Stockholm, and composition at the Royal College of Music in the same city. His output embraces concertos for flute, guitar, piano and cello, ballets, chamber music and the opera Jeppe: The cruel comedy. His music integrates ideas drawn from pop music, jazz and minimalism, and he was active also as a film composer. Having started out as one of Sweden’s foremost modernists, during the 1980s he turned towards postmodernism, cultivating a simpler, less astringent musical language. The Four songs of love exemplify this. Setting selected verses in English from the Biblical Song of Songs (otherwise Song of Solomon), these four brief pieces explore predominantly homophonic textures, often overlaying static or slow-moving façades of harmony with quicker verbal fragments. Let him kiss me begins with soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto parts punctuated by wordless tenor, baritone and bass, before the text is passed downwards to these lower voices. The tenor line soon soars into the upper extremes of its range. Parts freely divide into two in a fashion dictated by vertically thinking ‘orchestration’ of the harmonies rather than the contours of linear voice-leading. The setting hovers inconclusively between the related triadic areas of G minor and E flat major, beginning with the former and ending with the latter.
Until the daybreak presents the text of the title at two speeds, with transient upper voices playing across the sustained surface of lower chords, before a short-lived climax on the words ‘… and the shadows flee away’. In the latter stages the tonal G–E flat relationship of the previous song is reprised, before being carried over into the third, Awake, O north wind, whose opening fans upward from the bass regions in a kind of musical ‘Mexican wave’. Rapid syllabic articulation is belied by unwavering pitch and harmony, conveying a sense of events moving both quickly and slowly at the same time. With the phrase ‘Let my beloved come into his garden’ the tumult is stilled and the music gradually subsides towards a hushed, evanescent ending in the remote tonality of A minor. From that key the final song His left hand emerges, dividing verbal continuity between the alternating upper and lower halves of the chorus. Extending for a mere twenty bars and initially referring back to Until the daybreak, this enigmatic movement counterpoints harmonic procedures from the nineteenth century with dissonances that step like shadows from behind familiar consonant chords, creating a sonic halo around the inner core of the harmony. This effect is reversed when the final, beatific F major chord crystallizes from a dissonant nebula of extraneous pitches.
Messiaen wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du Temps at Stalag VIII-A, a POW camp roughly seventy miles east of the German city of Dresden. Here it was first performed on 15 January 1941 before an audience of just over 400. Although the work is for violin, clarinet, cello and piano, its fifth movement, Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’), requires only the last two of these instruments. At once monolithic and hypnotically sculptural in its effect, this timeless unfolding meditates on the idea of Christ as the embodiment of the Word of God. It consists of a sustained cello cantilena against piano chords which arrest the attention not merely by deviating continually from any expected tonal and harmonic direction, but also by being unguessably inconsistent in the number of their respective repetitions. Opening with a monody for cello alone, the music begins (with the piano entry) and ends on a chord of E major, yet projects this tonality as a kind of perpetual fulcrum, not a point of definitive arrival. In the central stages of the movement the piano becomes increasingly clangorous, while the cello seldom moves outside its middle and upper registers, preserving a rapt tonal intensity throughout. While the emotional atmosphere of such music might lend itself in principle to choral adaptation, on the face of it a foregrounded solo thread against a harmonic backdrop of repeating chords presents formidable obstacles for the arranger—especially when the composer’s tempo marking at the start is a daunting ‘Infiniment lent’ …
The late German composer Clytus Gottwald developed something of a speciality as an arranger from orchestral, chamber and other sources, having turned his attention not only to Messiaen but also to Wagner, Mahler, Puccini, Debussy, Ravel and even Webern. His preface to the Messiaen choral arrangement of Louange à l’éternité de Jésus contains the following:
In searching for a text which neither told a story nor reflected one, I came upon Messiaen’s own text …which he had composed for his Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine [1943-44, for women’s chorus, piano, ondes Martenot, percussion, vibraphone, celesta and strings] … [The text] reflects just that ambiguity which can also be observed in Messiaen’s music … It indicates and signifies nothing, and yet it articulates something.
Gottwald selected brief phrases from the poems in collage-like, re-arranged sequence, enabling his formidable array of nineteen voice parts (SSSSAAAAATTTTTBBBBB) to coalesce into a unified meditation. The multiplicity of parts facilitates passing of repeated chords between different voice groups. Remarkably little is changed or repositioned from Messiaen’s original score. What is altered, largely by the inclusion of the verbal text, is the contemplative vantage point: in Messiaen’s own words, the cello’s line ‘magnifies … the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, whose time never runs out’. The original music thus emerges as if emanating from the Word, whereas in Gottwald’s choral version it seems to express the prayerful soul’s own ecstatic contemplation of this same Word. One is perhaps reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that ‘if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you’.
Ambrož Čopi studied at the Academy of Music in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. He is a choral conductor, also artistic director of the International Youth Choir Festival ‘Aegis Carminis’, based in the south-west Slovenian coastal city of Koper. He wishes for the cloths of heaven sets in its original English a well-known short poem from the collection The wind among the reeds (1899) by the Irish poet W B Yeats (1865-1939). Čopi’s approach to harmony and homophonic, densely chordal textures is broadly similar to that of Sven-David Sandström, but differs in scoring: Čopi introduces a baritone soloist towards the end of his Yeats setting. The solo line awakens from amidst the continuing choral textures and remains partly subsumed by them, yet lends a heightened confessional intimacy to the poem’s closing two lines. The prominent descending semitone from Čopi’s opening makes frequent reappearances throughout, the plangency of its second chord absorbing traditional notions of dissonance into a euphonious postmodern language. A further divergence from Sandström lies in Čopi’s novel introduction of an instrumental part for crystal bowls, which awaken at the same moment as the baritone soloist. Playable with a variety of soft percussion mallets and sometimes known to musicians as ‘bowl gongs’, crystal bowls are widely used also as aids to meditation, and their discreet addition to a choral texture lends a serenely other-worldly sonority not unlike that of a vibraphone or string harmonics. The crystal bowls are the last sound heard as He wishes for the cloths of heaven recedes into silence.
Matej Kastelic, a compatriot of Čopi, was born in Ljubljana, where he too studied at Slovenia’s Academy of Music. He has composed for theatre and for choral forces. Dedicated to Čopi, Credo / I believe bears comparison with certain works by Sandström, in that it embraces the notion of deconstructing both a verbal text and a much earlier piece of music—in this instance, the eight-part Crucifixus by the Venetian composer Antonio Lotti (1667-1740).
Credo / I believe opens with ostensibly conventional plainchant, intoning the expected Latin text of the Creed. However, a spoken element in English soon arises in the background; unsettlingly, this ‘inverts’ the statement of the Latin text into a subversive or possibly accusatory question, after the fashion of a forced interrogation. The plainchant persists, becoming part of a mildly dissonant chorus. As yet, Lotti has made no detectable contribution, although hindsight will allow us to see Kastelic’s material here as preparing the way for Lotti’s fractured emergence, not least because both ‘musics’ emanate initially from the bottom of the texture, bubbling up from the emotional depths. In due course the chorus takes over the interrogative ‘Do you believe?’—but cuts out before the words ‘in one God’.
A keening soprano soloist is soon added, heightening the unsettlingly enigmatic nature of the unfolding drama. By now the whispering, agitating spoken voices are dismantling words into isolated syllables and the plainchant has disappeared, as if tuned out by distracting ‘white noise’. From this challenging terrain Lotti’s Cruxifixus begins to surface—but Kastelic displays masterly patience and control in feeding to the listener only inchoate, disfigured fragments; these form a kind of aural palimpsest. While the listener’s prior familiarity with the Lotti original is not essential, it will enable them the better to grasp the meeting points of quotation and re-invention.
The Latin text accelerates, attaching itself to agitated four-note descending scales and emphasizing the narrative sequence ‘Crucifixus … passus … sepultus’ (‘Crucified … suffered … buried’). An angry climax is generated. At length, music recedes altogether and, literally, religion is all finished bar the shouting. From this degeneration into chaos arises a lone female voice, silencing the clamour by uttering the unthinkable: ‘No! I do not! Want to believe! Do you? Do you still believe?’
Reference to Kastelic’s spoken subtext makes explicit the composer’s subversive agenda: the interrogative voices may be those of contemporary political repression, representing some of the modern world’s challenges to faith; or they may be our own inner voice of disillusionment and alienation from religion. Similarly, ‘glorifying, rulers, kingdom’ may allude to some celestial world to come, or else (cynically) to ways in which established Churches of one hue or another have always expediently managed things to their own political and material advantage. Kastelic poses unanswerable questions and sits at the opposite end of a spectrum from the devotional conviction of Olivier Messiaen. Credo / I believe subsides finally into a troubled darkness, petering out rather than truly ending. The printed score includes visual and gestural instructions reflecting its composer’s experience writing for theatre; and the composition’s potential for visually arresting staging is not in doubt. The State Choir Latvija’s eclectic programme thus moves to a viscerally sombre conclusion, compelling sober reflection from its audience.
Francis Pott © 2023
Forming the backbone are two pieces by Richard Strauss: the Deutsche Motette and Der Abend. The former is a masterpiece for unaccompanied choir and soloists that is both polyphonically rich and technically sophisticated, albeit very delicate in its musical shape. Both works rarely receive performances due to the sheer number of vocal forces called for; I am glad that the State Choir Latvija can enjoy the benefits that come with being a large choir, including the ability to perform large-scale choral works.
Although I am not a particularly strong advocate of choral transcriptions of instrumental music, I shall happily admit that I find Clytus Gottwald’s transcription of Messiaen’s Louange à l’éternité de Jésus even more splendid and interesting than its original for piano and cello; indeed, Gottwald’s use of an original text by Messiaen lends further artistic merit.
This recording also features some works by composers whose music is new to me, one of them being the Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström, who has also been a guest of honour at the International Sacred Music Festival organized by the State Choir Latvija. It was during my time studying conducting that I discovered Sandström’s work, which revealed to me a whole new point of view. His Four songs of love are subtle, nuanced and sensual pieces—characteristics that in part have come to define much of Sandström’s writing. Recording these pieces has also given valuable space and time to reflect on both our friendship over the years and Sandström’s recent passing.
I would also like to draw attention to the composers of Slovenia whose music features here. I have always admired and highly respected the Slovenian choral culture and tradition, and its combination of the full Slavic vocal sound with the European way of thinking and singing technique; this is brightly reflected not only in the sound of their choirs, but also in the music of Slovenian composers. The two composers I have chosen for this album are Ambrož Čopi and Matej Kastelic. I have been incredibly impressed by the talent of the young Kastelic and his ability to touch the hearts of audiences in his piece Credo / I believe. It combines a number of compositional techniques, quoting numerous passages from Lotti’s well-known Crucifixus, and posits pertinent questions about the relevance of faith in today’s society. I believe this piece is worthy of standing among the greatest classical choral works.
Māris Sirmais © 2023
Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the State Choir Latvija