Earlier this year I reviewed
- and greatly enjoyed - a four-disc collection of Ondine’s earlier recordings of choral music by Einojuhani Rautavaara. At that time I noted that a first recording of the Missa a cappella
was in the pipeline and now here it is. No fewer than four organisations were involved in the co-commissioning of this work, one of which was the Cheltenham Music Festival. The UK première of the piece was given at the 2012 Cheltenham Festival by the BBC Singers. I was unable to get to that concert but my Seen and Heard colleague, Roger Jones, reviewed
it and was impressed by it. Coming to the work now, belatedly, I can see why the piece received a favourable verdict from Roger.
There’s a link between this new Mass and the set of discs that I previously reviewed. That collection included a performance of Credo
(1972); Rautavaara incorporated that stand-alone movement into the 2011 Mass. Despite the gap of nearly four decades the Credo seems to fit seamlessly into the new Mass - the piece has found its home at last. The Credo is a fine piece in its own right and I particularly warmed to the reflective, slow music for the ‘Et incarnates … Crucifixus’ sections. Unusually, Rautavaara does not see ‘Et resurrexit’ as the cue for buoyant, celebratory music; instead the contemplative mood is continued right through to ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’. There’s interesting and effective music in the Kyrie and Gloria: I particularly like the way that a pair of solo sopranos soar over the ear-tickling choral textures in the Kyrie. The Sanctus is expansive and in this movement there are expressive solos for baritone and soprano before an extended, lyrical and increasingly high-lying tenor solo. All these solos are well taken by choir members. The Agnus Dei is especially memorable - and, we are told in the notes, it was encored at the first performance of the work. This is a hushed and gentle yet intense movement and it’s very beautiful. This eloquent Mass, beautifully written for voices, is a superb and important addition to the contemporary choral repertory and it here receives a terrific performance.
Unfortunately, anyone who has acquired the four-disc box previously mentioned - or the individual discs that it comprised - will find that there’s a lot of duplication between the earlier collection and this new release. In fact, apart from Our joyful’st Feast
everything else in the present programme can be found in the box. That’s a pity but I suppose it speaks to the comprehensive nature of the boxed survey. Psalm of Invocation
and Evening Hymn
are movements from Rautavaara’s substantial choral work, Vigilia
(1971/1986). From it the composer subsequently extracted these two movements for separate performance in English translations. Psalm of Invocation
is a powerful, urgent plea while Evening Hymn
is also a supplication but much more subdued in tone.
The tiny and early Missa duodecanonica
for upper voices has only three movements - Kyrie, Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus Dei. Apparently each movement is a brief canon on the twelve-note row on which the work is based - so the title is very literal. I have to say that, in comparison with the other music on the disc, I didn’t find it desperately interesting.
Ave Maria, gratia plena
was, we learn from the notes, originally entitled Ave Maria
and was for male voice choir but is sung here in a “recent” mixed voice version. The music moves slowly and is very beautiful. Canticum Mariae Virginis
is also a Marian piece. Here Rautavaara takes two old Marian hymns, ‘Ave maris stella’ and ‘Gaude Maria Virgo’ and sets them simultaneously. The piece is described in the notes as “highly constructivist in nature” but I find that one is unaware of the technical devices being employed because the music is so eloquent - and the performance so fine. It’s a powerful and most imaginative setting.
In 2010 Rautavaara received the annual carol commission for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. The resulting Christmas Carol
has been recorded by the King’s choir (review
). What we have here is a slightly earlier, secular Christmas piece. It’s a setting of words by Shakespeare from Love’s Labour’s Lost
. This is a most attractive piece; the choral writing is finely textured and there’s a winning melodic basis.
The programme began with one very impressive piece, the Missa a cappella
, and ends with another, the Rilke setting, Die erste Elegie
. This is a powerful, searching piece, richly imagined for voices. Like everything else on the disc it’s sung marvellously and with great commitment by the Latvian choir and when, from time to time, a short solo passage emerges from the choral texture these solos are very well taken.
The Latvian Radio Choir is a professional choir comprising, it seems from the booklet photograph, some 25 singers. They sing formidably under Sigvards Kļava, their chief conductor since 1992. The depth of tone is such that frequently one could believe that one is hearing a larger ensemble. The tonal quality of the choir is marvellous, whether they are singing softly or loudly. The Finnish choirs served Rautavaara extremely well in the aforementioned collection of recordings but here their Latvian colleagues are equally impressive advocates for his music. It’s regrettable that there’s such a degree of overlap. On the other hand, all admirers of this composer will surely want to have this splendid recording of his new Mass and anyone else who is interested in the choral music of our time should hear it also. The booklet is useful and the recorded sound is splendid.