Latvian composer Jēkabs Jančevskis may well prove to be the next big thing in the fickle world of choral singing. His music has all the ingredients mixed choirs love so much; wonderfully warm and opulent choral textures, oodles of atmosphere, luminous clusters, powerful musical imagery, and a whole host of vocal and non-vocal effects to keep even the most world-weary choral singer engrossed. From the singer’s point of view, this is challenging but extremely rewarding music: and before delving further into the review, I can only say that the 50-or-so young men and women which constitute the clumsily, if realistically named Mixed Choir of Riga Cathedral Choir School handle all these challenges magnificently. This is certainly a truly brilliant exhibition of outstanding choral singing, enhanced by a luscious recorded sound.
What satisfies choirs, always on the look-out to show off more than mere musical skills, does not always sit well with an audience out to discover something new yet rewarding. Jančevskis’ music, however, passes that test with flying colours; here is one of the most absorbing and remarkable choral discs I have heard for many years. It is not without its minor irritants, and I, for one, could happily live without the choral laughing in Atsalums which grates on my nerves more and more each time I hear it. But by far and away the most powerful message I take away from this disc is of an imaginative composer with something worthwhile to say beyond the mere meaning of the texts he sets, and the means of saying it in a hugely arresting manner. As conductor Jurģis Cābulis writes in his introductory note to this recording, the first dedicated to Jančevskis’ choral music, the music is ‘shaped by four fundamental building blocks; colour, strength, emotional intensity and a distinct perspective about the current state of time-space’ (I’m not so sure about the last one—but I readily confess to not understanding what it means!).
Although neither the booklet cover nor the insert in the back of the jewel case make any mention of performers other than the choir and its conductor, few of these works are truly a cappella, and even those where there is not an instrumental accompaniment are supported by non-vocal, or at least, non-musical, sounds. The opening work, for example (Odplyw) sets a Polish-language text about amber, with the imagery of a crab burying itself in the sand as the tide ebbs highlighted through a wordless hissing sound, resembling the ebbing and flowing of the sea. A sumptuously beautiful piece for double choir, one can only marvel here at the richness and luxuriant tone of the Riga choir. Atsalums opens with a magical evolving tonal cluster which, including various uttered vocalisations (whispering, whistling and that irritating laughter) and a haunting soprano solo wonderfully sung by Katrīna Paula Felsberga, develops a rhythmic momentum which is underpinned by the beating of a traditional Latvian bass drum. Another traditional Latvian instrument provides a potent presence in Ar zvaigžņu kluso gaismu which is an emotionally-charged response to a 2013 tragedy when 54 people died in the collapse of a supermarket in Riga. Here the Kokle (described as ‘the Latvian psaltery’) is used symbolically as it is said to embody the souls of the departe..
Initially, O lux beata Trinitas may seem like a fairly conventional setting of a Latin motet, scored for eight-part choir and four soloists. But after its ravishing opening verses, the drone-like accompaniment from the lower voices underpins a great fountain-like gushing of vocal tone, which takes on an angular marching rhythm before transforming itself into a strange other-worldly mass of sound, including percussion and mouth-blown organ pipes. As with so much of this music, the text is merely a superficial sequence of words on which Jančevskis hangs a whole wealth of historical symbolism and in which he invests a huge wealth of political metaphors. Nowhere is that more apparent than in The Button which sets a poem by Knuts Skujenieks written whilst languishing in a Soviet concentration camp. Haunting reflections on hope cascade on to great explosive outbursts reinforced by a trio of saxophones, organ and percussion. This is hugely powerful stuff both musically and emotionally.
The largest work here is When, composed in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and setting a very short extract from Romeo and Juliet. But not only does Jančevskis stretch this out for some 10 minutes, he scores it for 24 voices arranged in two semi-choruses (representing, according to the composer, ‘the secular and the eternal’, accompanied by a cello, which forms a ‘bridge of light’ between the two; and is played on this recording with shimmering eloquence by Kristaps Bergs. The result is an astonishingly powerful and dramatically-charged work, which surely deserves a place in that great panoply of works inspired by Shakespeare’s timeless tale of love and revenge.