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Tōnu KŌRVITS (b. 1969)
Kreego vihik (Kreek’s Notebook) (2007)* [31:04]
The night is darkening round me (2005) [6:21]
Arturs MASKATS (b. 1957)
Lacrimosa (1995)* [7:44]
Lūgums naktij (Prayer to the night) (1978) [2:59]
Pēteris PLAKIDIS (b. 1947)
In memoriam (1990) [5:53]
Fatamorgāna (Mirage) (1980) [7:15]
William Mason (organ)
The Choir of Royal Holloway
*Britten Sinfonia/Rupert Gough
rec. 21-23 June 2012, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
HYPERION CDA67968 [61:18]

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 memoriam 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 this disc.
 
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 by Arturs 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.
 
Plakidis’ Fatamorgāna 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.
 
John Quinn
 

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