Latvian Choir Draws in the Crowds to Glamorgan Musicfest

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2016 Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival I – Vasks, Esenvalds, Hillborg, Pärt:  Latvian Radio Choir / Sigvards Klava (conductor), St Augustine’s Church, Penarth, 10.5.2016. (PCG)

Pēteris VasksMate saule: Musu masu vardi: The fruit of silence: Ziles zina

Ēriks EsenvaldsA drop in the ocean

Anders HillborgMuio:aa:yly:oum

Arvo PärtVirgencita: Nunc dimittis

This year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival got off to a splendid start with a concert given in the spectacularly situated St Augustine’s Church in Penarth by the Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Klava. Despite the fact that the oldest music on the programme was written as recently as 1975, the church was packed – which yet again serves to demonstrate that there are enthusiastic audiences for new classical music when listeners feel that they can trust the choice of the artistic director John Metcalf in the selection of scores. None of the music here, with the exception of the folksong arrangement given as an encore (at least, I think it was a folksong arrangement – we were not actually told what it was), could be described as conventionally written for chorus; but all of them had features of interest and indeed beauty.

Four of the pieces here were by Pēteris Vasks, one of the composers featured in this year’s Festival, who was present in the audience. Three of them centred around the notion of the renewing power of the natural world, but the selection of poems were otherwise quite disparate with lines that rather alarmingly juxtaposed the visionary with the banal – “The sun is rising like dough in a bowl” was the first line of Janis Peters’s poem Mother sun. The setting of this centred around a gentle collision of ‘white notes’ framing the text, which was cleanly and clearly outlined. The choir demonstrated a superb control of glissando in the passage leading to the depiction of the lambs in the fields; the final verse, with its more staccato phrases, was less effective but featured a glorious climax which in many ways prefigured the ‘tintinabulations’ of Arvo Pärt – although the score, originally written in 1975, was revised by the composer over 25 years later, and these pre-echoes may have been the result of later amendments. Our Mother’s Names, a setting of a poem by Māris Čaklais, featured some of the same background textures, but the dramatic declamation of the text even extended in the second verse into an imitative passage of a melodic phrase from one section of the choir to another in the manner of a fugato. This in turn gave way to a sort of imitation of bird-calls to positively orchestral effect, and then a chorale-like passage counterpointed with slithering chromatics. The relationship of all this to the text was unclear, tangential and allusive rather than illustrative, and the piece lacked much sense of unity; but the performance by the choir was simply stunning, full-toned and virtuosic. At the very end peace was restored in a passage that owed something to the haunting end of the Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antartica.

The most recent piece by Vasks on this programme, written as recently as 2013, although it was written for the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival set a text (by the composer himself) in English. It was brief – some five minutes – but the use of the language was not ideally idiomatic, the word “pray-er” being set and enunciated as two very distinct syllables, and a regular emphasis on the word “The” at the start of each line. Vasks seemed much more at home in The tomtit’s message based on a poem by Uldis Bērzinš. It inhabited the composer’s same sound-world, with an atmospheric texture overlaid with a sustained melodic line, choral glissandi and other such effects. The chorale-like passage at the words “The sun rises in the clouds” (perversely set to a descending melodic line) led to more dramatic material which challenged the choir to the utmost – a challenge to which they rose superbly, with daunting accuracy of pitch aided in places by a discreet use of surreptitiously employed tuning devices.

In the first half of the concert, the piece A drop in the ocean by Eriks Esenvalds inhabited much the same sort of territory as Vasks, with a melodic line strung out over an atmospheric background; but that background here consisted of breathing and quiet (indeed almost inaudible) whistling, a mixture that might sound peculiar but which produced very beautiful results. The text consisted of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, and the composer seemed determined to ensure that the setting had as little to do with the actual words as possible (which in any event were hardly decipherable). The programme note by Gabriel Jackson informed us that “in live performance” the choir should be enveloped by a cloth revealing the face of Mother Teresa; we were perhaps mercifully spared such theatricals here, but the protracted ending of the piece had an atmosphere that again seemed more Antarctic than spiritual. Even more adventurous was an extended piece by Anders Hillborg written as long ago as 1983 and described in the programme as “a minimalist classic.” In fact it was positively complex for a work in minimalist style, and the choir were employed to produce effects that in many places seemed to evoke the other-worldly music of Ligeti as adapted for the film 2001 rather than Vaughan Williams’s icy landscapes. In many places imitations of electronic effects were woven into the music, almost in the manner of ‘New Age’ music designed for meditation and contemplation; at other times the mood was disturbed by more strenuous dynamics, and the quiet ending was spoiled by a particularly unfortunate loud cough from a member of the audience seated a couple of rows in front of me during the seconds of silence before the applause.

The concert also contained two brief works by Arvo Pärt himself, featured as a composer in last year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival. The brief Virgencita unfortunately failed to hold attention, the persistent lapses into silence breaking the unity of the music and only beginning to coalesce after a minute or so had passed. The final repetition of the text did rise to a climax, but it was all a bit too late in the day. The composer’s setting of the Nunc dimittis, on the other hand, is a real masterpiece, avoiding the ‘stop-go’ effect of the later work; and even when the phrases were halted, the onward momentum was palpable. In the hands of these singers the deep harmonies at the end were marvellously profound.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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