Latvia may be a little country but when it comes to music, the enthusiasm of the Terpsichore-loving locals is bigger than the endless Baltic summer skies. Even esoteric repertoire such as Gregorian plainchant or early English sacred music is received with palpably serious attention and exuberant approbation.

Latvian Radio Choir © Matiss Markovskis
Latvian Radio Choir
© Matiss Markovskis

Known as “The Land that Sings”, it is not surprising that the quality of choral singing in this bijou Baltic state is so impressive. Almost every village, hamlet and ciems has its own choir. Every five years they get together for a kind of choral Olympiad-cum-“Latvia’s Got Lots of Talent” extravaganza called the Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration which culminates with no less than 20,000 choristers singing together on a gigantic outdoor stage. This event is so popular that another 30,000 happy Latvians are in the audience. For a country of less the two million inhabitants, these are extraordinary numbers. The next Latvian choral jamboree is in July next year.

The 23rd International Festival of Early Music opened with a pot-pourri of Baroque instrumental music performed by the Milan-based Coin du Roi ensemble under its founding conductor Christian Frattima. The Italian maestro, who has been invited to play an ongoing artistic role in future Festivals, performed something of a musical marathon by conducting four concerts in three days.

The artistic highlight of the Baltic Baroque binge however was the concert of Gregorian chants and early English sacred music by the celebrated Latvian Radio Choir which has enjoyed a pre-eminent international reputation in the world of choral music for over 70 years and, although perhaps better known for its performances of contemporary composers such as Pētersons or Pärt, is no stranger to early music. It regularly performs Tallis and Palestrina although this was the first occasion in which the LRC had ventured into the Gregorian genre.

The choir is closer to the Tallis Scholars than King’s College Cambridge in terms of sonority as it comprises an even number of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. While the ethereal sound of boy sopranos can obviously not be replicated, the meticulous musicianship and vibrato-less timbre of the Latvian singers makes the LRC an ensemble of the first magnitude. An unusual feature is that almost all singers also take lengthy solo passages which confirms the range and depth of the choir as a whole.

The concert was held in the venerable Lutheran church of St Peter in the centre of Riga and while the building has many architectural and historical merits, optimal acoustics are not one of them.

Monophonic selections were particularly distinctive in that they were led by Gregorian specialist Simone van den Dool who also sang a number of solos. Van den Dool has a singularly original conducting technique which harks back to the cheironomic style more common in ancient Byzantine performances. Today it seems more like musical sign language as Van den Dool employed emphatic finger jabs and abrupt wrist flicks rather than the more familiar fluid indication of rhythm and phrasing, but such batonless methodology has historical validity as well as obvious efficacy. Although passionately articulated, her vocal solos such as the Offertorium VIII: Ave Maria were distinctly not as peerless as several of the other sopranos.

Constant repositioning of the singers both around the Church and within the traditional SATB line-up made for varying visual interest and fascinating gradations of tone colour. Similarly, pitch-variable neume notations were especially effective such as the male chorus singing from the back of the church in a duo-tonal pedal which accompanied the Audi filia.

The LRC is committed not only to exemplary music making but also to  exploring the physical boundaries of the human voice. Although this is more evident in contemporary music repertoire, neume notation flexibility and the use of quarter and overtone singing makes the LRC absolute chanteurs sans frontièrs.

Three Gregorian based selections from the Eton Choir Book dating from 1430-1490 which included motets by John Browne (charmingly translated into Latvian as ‘Džons Brauns'), John Sutton and a Magnificat by William Horwood, interspersed the chants. These more complicated polyphonic compositions were conducted by Pēteris Vaickovskis with much more traditional hand movements than his co-maestro. The result was some really superb contrapuntal choral singing, especially in Sutton’s Salve Regina and Browne’s O Maria Salvatorus Mater.

This was in all respects a tour de force performance from the Latvian Radio Choir and lovers of fine choral music in the UK will be pleased to know that the LRC will be performing at this year’s BBC Proms concerts in August.