All the Baltic states have strong choral traditions, and before I entered St John’s Church in Riga, I was well aware that the Latvian Radio Choir are one of the very best. I was also well aware of the fine qualities of composers such as Tigran Mansurian and James MacMillan. But seeing these 24 singers unaccompanied at close quarters for the first time, I honestly found myself unprepared for the experience.

Latvian Radio Choir
© Janis Deinats

What takes this choir out of the ordinary is the quality of the blended sound. For sure, these are all individually excellent singers: in the course of 90 minutes of music, each had one or more solos, with imperfections for the evening counted on the fingers of one hand. But when a set or three or six of them sing together, the homogeneity they achieve lends extraordinary power to a phrase. And the balance between sections was precision engineered to the micrometre by conductor Sigvards Kļava, something that was evident from the opening notes of the first work, Mansurian’s The Sea. When the bass notes went low, the ground notes were solid as timeless granite. The tenor sound had strength without being forced. Altos were smooth as velvet, providing the lilt of the waves. Sopranos provided the sparkle at the top of the mix or soared above it, most appropriately in the second Mansurian work, The Bird of the East. When alto or soprano notes were held, they were exquisite. But this pair of secular songs formed a mere curtain raiser for the serious devotional material to follow.

Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is best remembered in the West for the romantic epic that was David Lean’s film. But there’s much more to Zhivago than Omar Sharif, including a serious cycle of poetry. Na Strastnoy (На Страстной, literally “On Passion”, usually translated as “In Holy Week”) is a stirring evocation of the high drama of death and resurrection. Kļava has been heavily involved in two settings of Na Strastnoy, both of which were performed in this concert. The first, by Russian-born Alfred Momotenko, showed the different voices in conversation with each other as well as interweaving. It embodied a wide variety of moods and emotional effects: clearly, here was a choir that had no need for an accompanying orchestra to build tension. The technical difficulty of the multi-part splits would have destroyed a lesser choir or one not at the very top of its game: here, they produced extraordinary drama. Latvian composer Arturs Maskats’ setting of Na Strastnoy showed how the same poem could prompt a very different musical response – less dramatic but more fervent and imbued with faith. For this, the choir was joined by tenor soloist Mihails Čuļpajevs and percussionist Ivo Krūskops (mainly playing various forms of bells). Maskats' music provided wonderful ebb and flow of passion and release, with the penultimate line producing immense power.

Sigvards Kļava
© Latvian Radio Choir

The most thrilling piece of the concert was Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Es raktsu. Here was music in which each breaking wave grew ever stronger and each intervening moment of calm gave ever more necessary respite. When you thought that Ešenvalds had thrown in everything he had, the composer proved you wrong: the final climax knocked you sideways.

Juris Karlsons’ setting of the Latin prayer Ora pro nobis provided a different medium to display the choir’s virtuosity: a rapid fire repetition of the words “Virgo sacrata” that turned into head-spinning polyrhythmic complexity before coalescing into strong themes in a way reminiscent of traditional African music. The torrent of notes could so easily have degenerated into formless slush, but such was the Latvian Radio Choir’s precision that a sense of purpose was maintained throughout.

After such fireworks, James MacMillan’s Miserere came across as almost tame; but in truth, here was the moment for beauty to reassert itself, with gorgeous suspended chords and layers of sound. And although this is a highly devotional work, you did not need to be religious to appreciate its depths of spirituality. A final outburst of pure joy preceded more suspensions falling into a dead calm: a fitting end to a concert that had billed itself as “The divine quiet”.

David's trip to Riga was sponsored by Live Riga