In recent years Hyperion have been doing collectors
a signal service - not for the first time - by issuing recordings that
have opened the ears of many of us, myself included, to the important
repertoire of recent and contemporary choral music from the Baltic states.
Rupert Gough and his excellent Royal Holloway Choir have been in the
vanguard, with programmes by Rihards Dubra (review
Bo Hansson (review
and Vytautas Miškinis (review
These have all been stimulating releases, expertly performed.
Nearly all the music on this, their latest offering, was new to me.
I say nearly all because I heard them perform two of the pieces, In
by Plakidis and, as an encore. Lūgums naktij
by Maskats, during a splendid recital that they gave earlier this summer
at the Cheltenham Music Festival, when they were joined by one of the
college’s most distinguished alumni, Dame Felicity Lott (review
It was hearing those pieces then that whetted my appetite to seek out
The main work on the programme is Kreek’s Notebook
, a homage
to one Estonian composer by another. Tōnu Kōrvits’ piece
celebrates the work of Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962). Starting in 1911,
Kreek collected a substantial number of the traditional folk hymns of
his native land. As Rupert Gough tells us in his notes, Kreek was the
first person systematically to research these melodies, many of which
originated in 18th
century Lutheran hymns. Kreek’s
labours made these hymns widely available for Estonian choirs to sing.
However, during the Soviet years this part of the repertoire was banned
and the hymns only resurfaced when Soviet rule ended.
In his eight-movement work Kōrvits has taken seven of these hymns
- the third movement is for strings alone but is also based on a folk
melody - and has used them as the basis for a remarkable piece of musical
re-imagining. The tunes are those collected by Kreek but the highly
inventive instrumental accompaniments are Kōrvits’ own as
are the equally imaginative choral arrangements. The piece starts off
innocently enough with a beguiling, joyful hymn for women’s voices
accompanied by mainly pizzicati
strings. However, in the following
hymn, an Evening Hymn for male voices, the music takes on a much more
serious countenance. There follows a short movement for strings only
which Rupert Gough perceptively compares to the Playful pizzicato
movement in Britten’s Simple Symphony
. The fifth movement
contains a haunting soprano solo, which is beautifully done by a member
of the choir, Gillian Franklin. The seventh movement also caught my
attention. It’s the only movement for unaccompanied choir and
it features some very searching choral writing and harmonies. I’m
sure it requires expert intonation and tuning. The last hymn opens with
an extended and increasingly complex string introduction. When the choir
come in they have a splendid, broad tune to sing which makes a fine,
affirmative close to Kreek’s Notebook
. This work seems
to me to be a most imaginative and successful reinterpretation of music
of the past and I’m very glad to have heard it, especially in
a performance as committed as this one.
The other short work by Kōrvits is a setting of a poem by Emily
Brontë - I’m unsure if the whole poem has been set. This
piece for unaccompanied choir has a prominent mezzo solo part which
is sung with plaintive purity of tone and fine expression by Kate Telfer.
Her colleagues in the choir have some ravishingly elusive choral textures,
which they deliver splendidly.
The remaining works are by Latvian composers. Lacrimosa
Maskats is a response to the Estonia
ferry disaster of 1994 in
which nearly 1,000 people perished. He sets the last six lines of the
Dies Irae for choir, strings and organ. It’s a very intense -
and effective - piece though it ends calmly, perhaps accepting fate?
The austere beauty of the closing pages is particularly impressive.
I heard Maskats’ Lūgums naktij
at the Cheltenham
concert that I mentioned earlier. It’s an early piece, dating
from his student days, and it’s serenely beautiful.
I also heard In memoriam
by Pēteris Plakidis at Cheltenham.
Essentially the piece is a slow chorale around which, almost continually,
soprano voices sing gently lilting, decorative lines in triple time.
The piece is direct in expression and haunting and when I first heard
it I resolved to get this disc in order to hear it again. Well, now
I have heard it again and, if anything, it makes a stronger impression
here. I think that may have something to do with the fact that this
recording has been made in a more resonant acoustic than the building
in Cheltenham. There’s more space around the voices and I think
that the carolling sopranos may be placed at a distance from the main
choir. It’s a lovely piece: do try to hear it.
is also very interesting. It
consists of three short movements and confirms that he has a fine feeling
for inventive choral textures. The middle movement is scored for soprano
solo and sopranos and it’s quite enchanting. The last movement
has a slow, beautiful melody sung, I think, by the altos and amid the
surrounding choral textures it’s once again carolling soprano
lines that really catch the ear. The ravishing end has the music seemingly
vanishing into thin air.
This is a programme packed with interesting music. Yet again Hyperion’s
enterprise in issuing a disc like this shows us what fine choral music
is to be heard in the Baltic States. The performances are out of the
top drawer. The quality of the singing is consistently excellent and
the requirement to sing in challengingly unfamiliar languages seems
to pose no problems at all for this choir. They already have a deservedly
high reputation which this new release confirms is fully justified.
The recorded sound is first class and the documentation is up to the
usual high standards of the house, though I do wish Hyperion would print
at least their texts and translations in a slightly larger font.