Latvian voices live up to stellar reputations in voyage of choral discovery.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
January 23, 2015

Topping the classical music bill at this year’s Sydney Festival (and Limelight’s prospective pick of the bunch), the Latvian Radio Choir last night proved why they are considered one of the very finest vocal outfits on the planet. In one hour, straight through, they delivered textbook interpretations of some of the most challenging and illuminating works in the modern choral repertoire.

How satisfying to be at one of those concerts where from the very first note you know that you can relax, sit back and let the safe hands of the performers take you wherever they will. Under their current conductor Sigvards Klava, the LRC discipline was immediately evident, as was control of dynamics – this is a choir who can pinpoint a pianissimo like 24 elite vocal ninjas. When required to deliver a full, satisfying forte, which they did relatively rarely in this essentially reflective program, it was clear that these were big voices making their mastery of a quiet, clean line with minimal vibrato even more impressive. And what a blend! Tight, bright sopranos, warm altos, sensitive, yet potent tenors and some of the most rich, subterranean basses you’ll hear this side of Northern Lapland. Clearly unafraid to take on seemingly unscalable musical heights, they tackled eight substantial and exceptionally tricky works, one after the other, and never batted an eyelid.

Beginning with Immortal Bach by the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt (who sadly died last year at the age of 99), the piece is an original take on the opening of Bach’s chorale Komm Süßer Tod. Following the initial statement of the Bach, five choirs sing the original music but in different tempi, only gathering themselves together at the end of each phrase, thus creating a weird, atonal, extruded choral collage – a bit like putting JSB through a blender on the slowest setting.

If there was a theme to the evening it might have been putting old wine in new bottles. Nystedt’s Bach was matched by Sven-David Sandström’s similarly whacky take on Purcell’s Hear, My Prayer O Lord, where what appears at first an augmented take on the original fans out into all sorts of choral jiggery-pokery. If that whets your appetite you should try Sandström’s extraordinary setting of Handel’s original Messiah libretto on the Carus label.

It was two arrangements of Mahler, though, that really brought the house down. Clytus Gottwald’s sublime arrangement of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) from the Rückert Lieder is justly one of the most recorded of his many vocal transcriptions and, with 16 parts, quite a challenge for a choir of 24. Slightly less impressive, purely as an arrangement, was Gérard Pesson’s daring vocal transcription of the famous Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. A long, tricky sing, the performance clearly landed with the enthusiastic Sydney audience, and reduced at least one member of the choir to tears!

Two works by 80th birthday boy, Arvo Pärt (his popular Da Pacem Domine and, to my mind, his even finer Nunc Dimittis) received pitch-perfect performances, the serene harmonies of the latter in particular benefitting from Klava’s management of breath control in the apparently endless phrases and dynamic shading.

No choir is more closely associated with the music of the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks (three superb recordings available on BIS and Ondine) and the LRC gave an idiomatic account of his demanding Ziles zina (The Message of the Titmouse), which calls for extended vocal techniques and iron discipline to combine the improvisatory with the prescribed.

But perhaps the highlight for me was Anders Hillborg’s fiendishly difficult muoayiyoum. Now 60, and one of Sweden’s most outstanding composers, Hillborg requires the choir to split into 16 parts and to vocalise for 12 or so minutes on the phonetics of the word mu:o:ay:i:yo:um. In the course of a performance, individual singers are required to explore their highest and lowest registers, engage in hand tremolos and whistling, and master some devilishly tight quarter tone singing. Beginning with a bizarre soughing sound like the wind in a graveyard, the work opens out into some of the most unusual, yet lovely sounds, achieving a delicious radiance via intricate divisions amongst the higher voices.

Mystical and magical, like so much of this outstanding evening, the Latvian Radio Choir set a final seal of approval on this year’s Sydney Festival.

The Latvian Radio Choir performs one more concert tonight at City Recital Hall.

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