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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Latin Motets
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Kļava
Jānis Kurševs (tenor), Kristīne Adamaite (organ)
rec. 2-5 March 2020, Dome Cathedral, Riga, Latvia
Texts and English translations included
ONDINE ODE1362-2 [58:48]

There are two reasons why this disc was bound to be a winner. First, the programme is sublime. Many might think of Bruckner as a composer of interminable symphonies (and many others might agree). But Bruckner was a deeply religious man, and sacred choral music was an important part of his output. Here we have a collection of motets, of which the earliest, Libera me, dates from 1843, and the latest, Vexilla Regis, from 1894. Libera me, two of the Tantum Ergo settings, and Tota pulchra es have simple organ accompaniments; the others are unaccompanied. Locus iste is frequently performed by amateur choirs, and indeed many of these pieces can be tackled by a competent amateur group. Much of the writing is homophonic – the music often looks very simple on the page – suggesting that Brucker was anxious that the words be heard. He was for the most part content with four voices, usually dividing them only at points of high emotion or to bring out the meaning of a particular word or passage. At such moments the choral sound is quite splendid. The disc opens with Os justi, a perfect example of this. After a lifetime of work with choirs, this short work continues to astound me. The text is taken from Psalm 37: ‘The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom’ and ‘The law of his God is in his heart’. Bruckner sets the word ‘heart’ (‘corde’) in a series of suspensions distributed throughout the voices, to profoundly moving effect. Careful searching would be required to find a more ecstatic Ave Maria than this one. Similar moments abound in this repertoire, but there are more austere passages too. Vexilla Regis, the motet that closes the collection, is an understated, fully written out three-verse strophic work. Simple on the face of it – though with a couple of tricky key changes – it creates a powerful effect of quiet contemplation and devotion.

So the music, gorgeous and frequently extremely moving, is the first reason why this disc can hardly fail. The second is that the Latvian Radio Choir is undoubtedly one of the finest in the world. I have been lucky enough to hear this choir in concert three times; and once, in the large collegiate church close to where I live, I was able to sneak into the afternoon rehearsal. It was fascinating and humbling to witness just how far this group, and their conductor, will go to attain the near-perfection with which they sing. From the firm bass line upwards, extreme vocal beauty is aligned with uncanny textural clarity, each vocal strand separate yet integrated into the whole. Above all, they sing with a remarkable unity of spirit, at one both with the composer and with each other. Each time I have heard them in concert in France a Latvian folk song has been the encore. There are few dry eyes in the house at that moment.

Listening to this collection with the scores to hand – eight of these works are to be found in a handy Peters Edition album – is instructive. There are tempo indications at the beginning of each work, but rarely any changes thereafter. Kļava, on the other hand, does not hesitate to modify the pulse where he feels the need. He occasionally seems impatient with Bruckner’s marked silent bars, even, in Christus factus est, ignoring one altogether. Dynamics are scrupulously observed: a pianissimo is just that, and the power at the other end of the scale can be truly awesome. Tuning is faultless, vibrato discreet. Every word of the text can be heard, even from within the inner parts. The accompaniments are easily and well dispatched by Kristīne Adamaite, and there is a lovely contribution from Jānis Kurševs in Tota pulchra es, a world apart, in vocal timbre, from an English choral tenor.

The Latvian Radio Choir usually records in St John’s Church in Riga, but for this collection they are placed in the much more generous acoustic of that lovely city’s cathedral. This is perhaps a mixed blessing: the quiet first notes of phrases can sometimes be obscured when a preceding passage has ended loudly. But this must not discourage anyone who loves Bruckner’s sacred choral works, and still less those yet to discover this glorious repertoire.

William Hedley
Previous review: Glyn Pursglove

Disc contents
Os Justi (WAB 30) [4:10]
Christus factus est (WAB 11) [5:28]
Locus iste (WAB 23) [3:13]
Ave Maria (WAB 6) [4:05]
Libera me (F minor) (WAB 21) [2:18]
Kronstorfer Messe (WAB 146) [6:42]
Tantum Ergo (WAB 32) [3:07]
Tantum Ergo (WAB 41) [2:19]
Tantum Ergo (WAB 42) [2:42]
Tantum Ergo (WAB 43) [1:35]
Virga Jesse (WAB 52) [3:51]
Pange lingua et Tantum ergo (WAB 33) [5:30]
Salvum fac populum tuum (WAB 40) [3:23]
Tota pulchra es Maria (WAB 46) [5:20]
Vexilla Regis (WAB 51) [4:55]

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