Strauss credo CDA68426

Richard Strauss
Deutsche Motette Op 62 (1913)
Sven-David Sandström (1942-2019)
Four songs of love (2008)
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), arr. Clytus Gottwald (1925-2023)
Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (arr. 1992) Ambrož Čopi (b1973)
He wishes for the cloths of heaven (2015) Richard Strauss
Der Abend Op 34 No 1(1897)
Matej Kastelic (b1994)
Credo / I believe (2016/17)
State Choir LATVIJA / Māris Sirmais
rec. 2021, St John’s Church, Riga, Latvia
Texts and English translations included
Hyperion CDA68426 [56]

The State Choir LATVIJA was founded in 1942, I believe. According to its website, the ensemble is the largest professional choir in the Baltic States; it has 60 members. I’ve heard some of their previous recordings, including a disc of music by Ēriks Ešenvalds, a former member of the choir (review) and one featuring works by Gabriel Jackson (review). Everything I’ve heard has impressed me enormously. For this latest release they offer a programme of music for unaccompanied choir by several composers. They are conducted by Māris Sirmais, their Artistic Director and Chief Conductor since 1997. Introducing the programme in the booklet, Sirmais explains that “the overarching theme….is that of love – love among people, love of faith and of God, and love as emotion and sensuality”.

The cornerstones of the programme are two works by Richard Strauss. The Deutsche Motette is a very ambitious setting of a poem by Rückert, here playing for just over 19 minutes and lavishly scored for SATB soloists and an SATB choir divided into 16 parts. Right from the start of the piece the textures are rich and glowing, yet in a good performance – and this is a very good performance – the textures should not be mushy: the present performance avoids that trap. Māris Sirmais allows the music to be properly expansive yet he ensures that there’s always a sense of purpose. The extended contrapuntal episode from 8:24 (‘O zeig mir, mich zu erquicken’) is a demonstration of compositional virtuosity on the part of Strauss and of virtuoso singing by State Choir LATVIJA. Sirmais and his singers accomplish the extended coda (from about 15:00) marvellously; the singing is superbly controlled. The four soloists, all members of the choir, make excellent contributions: the soprano and tenor – Viktorija Pakalniece and Mārtiņš Zvīgulis – have especially demanding roles and acquit themselves splendidly. This is as fine a performance as I can recall hearing of Strauss’s demanding score.

The Deutsche Motette isn’t the only example of opulent multi-part choral music in Strauss’s output. In 1897 he composed his Op 34, a pair of Gesänge for 16-part SATB choir. The second of these is Hymne, another Rückert setting. I presume it is not included here because it doesn’t fit in with the theme of the programme. However, we do get to hear the companion piece, Der Abend, in which Strauss set poetry by Schiller. It’s an impressive composition, calling for – and here receiving – virtuoso singing. I don’t find it quite as memorable a piece as Deutsche Motette but this performance held my attention throughout; the intense, romantic harmonies during last four minutes or so (from about 6:30) are simply gorgeous.

Over the years I’ve encountered a number of pieces which are choral arrangements of instrumental works. I’m afraid I’ve yet to hear one which I find fully satisfactory; even Samuel Barber’s own arrangement of his Adagio for Strings as Agnus Dei fails to convince me. The German composer Clytus Gottwald was a particular exponent of these choral arrangements and I’ve heard a number of examples of his endeavours. I was interested – and somewhat reassured – to read Māris Sirmais’ comment that he is “not a particularly strong advocate of choral transcriptions of instrumental music”. However, he goes on to express admiration for Gottwald’s arrangement of Messiaen’s Louange à l’éternité de Jésus. This is the fifth movement of Quatuor pour le fin du Temps, the extraordinary, visionary chamber work that Messiaen composed in 1940 while incarcerated in a German internment camp. In the original, the movement is scored for cello and piano. Here, Gottwald transcribes the music for a 19-part SATB choir and he chooses for his text selected extracts from Messiaen’s own libretto for Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine. To be honest, Gottwald might just as well have set no words at all and asked his singers to vocalise because a mixture of dense textures and stretching tessitura for the upper voices at times meant that even when listening through headphones, I found it very difficult to discern the words. To my surprise, I enjoyed Gottwald’s arrangement a bit more than I expected to do but I’m afraid I still find the concept fundamentally misconceived. Messiaen’s original relies on the intimacy of just two instruments and that’s completely lost here. On one level, Gottwald’s arrangement is gorgeous, especially when it’s as expertly performed as here, but I remain unconvinced.

The rest of the music on the programme was previously unknown to me. In his Four songs of love Sven-David Sandström made four short settings of texts from the Song of Songs. I enjoyed these pieces; Sandström displays a fine ear for choral textures and, moreover, a discerning touch in using textures per se in an expressive fashion. The first of the songs, ‘Let him kiss me’ enterprisingly differentiates between the three female voice parts and the three male vocal lines. The music is sensuous, as befits the text. In the third number ‘Awake, O north wind’, the music seems to be quicker than in the other three pieces. However, I wonder (without seeing a score) if that’s an illusion created by Sandström using short-value notes while maintaining a steady pulse. There is no doubt that the end of this piece is slow in tempo; the music is hushed and atmospheric, creating the sense of a soft bed of sound. The final song, ‘His left hand’ provides a very satisfying conclusion to the set; the tempo is slow and the choral writing consists of very rich, sophisticated harmony.

The programme includes two pieces by contemporary Slovenian composers; these have been chosen by Māris Sirmais to reflect his admiration for the choral tradition of Slovenia. In He wishes for the cloths of heaven, Ambrož Čopi sets the celebrated poem by W B Yeats (‘Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths’). I admired this piece very much. Čopi uses dense choral textures to cushion Yeats’ words and the results are very beautiful. Towards the end, starting at ‘I have spread my dreams under your feet’, the composer adds a new dimension – or, rather, two dimensions. He introduces a solo bass (Jānis Petrovskis, whose suave singing is excellent) and also the subtle timbre of crystal bowls, played by several members of the choir using a variety of soft percussion mallets; the effect is magical.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Credo / I believe by Matej Kastelic. This work juxtaposes the Latin words of the Creed (mainly sung by the male voices) and English words with which the female voices pose challenges to belief as expressed in the Creed. That, in itself, is a novel and intriguing approach. Kastelic’s music uses a variety of devices, including spoken words pitted against sung words, various bits of vocalising and allusions to Lotti’s Crucifixus. The result is something of a collage which I found, in the end, self-defeatingly complex. I can respect the concept of Kastelic’s piece but, unlike the other pieces on this programme, it doesn’t move me at all.

Though a couple of pieces – the Gottwald and the Kastelic – are not really to my taste, that’s an entirely subjective reaction which other listeners may not share. Overall, I found this programme stimulating and very interesting. If I have a reservation or two about the music, I have no reservations whatsoever about the standard of the performances. Under the guidance of Māris Sirmais the members of State Choir LATVIJA offer singing of formidable accomplishment. Everything on their programme requires collective virtuosity and every challenge is surmounted by this fine ensemble.

The recording, engineered by Gustavs Ērenpreiss, is ideally judged and presents the choir in a clear and very sympathetic way. The excellent booklet notes by Francis Pott give a composer’s insight into the music.

John Quinn

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