There is something particularly appealing about a country which describes itself as “The Land that Sings”. In the case of Latvia, this is no mere marketing hyperbole. There is a millennia-long tradition of a cappella choral singing in this bijou Baltic state and music is an integral part of everyday life. There are hundreds of enthusiastic amateur choirs throughout the country and some first-rate professional ones such as the Latvian Radio Choir. It has been said that singing comes as naturally to the Latvians as beer to Bavarians. The Economist recently described Latvia as “the choral superpower”.

Elīna Šimkus and Christian Frattima © Jānis Porietis
Elīna Šimkus and Christian Frattima
© Jānis Porietis

For a small country with a population only slightly larger than the city of Vienna to have produced such internationally famous musicians and singers as Mariss Jansons, Andris Nelsons, Gidon Kremer, Elīna Garanča and Kristine Opolais is in itself remarkable. Balletomanes may be surprised to know that Mikail Baryshnikov was also born in Riga. Not content to rest on its laurels of acclaimed choral excellence, the hyperactive Latvijas Koncerti organisation presents over 400 instrumental and orchestral concerts in all seasons. A highlight is the summer International Festival of Early Music, which is now in its 22nd year. It is an indication of the receptivity Latvians have for all forms of music that this somewhat esoteric genre seems to be as popular as the local daina folk songs. All performances of the Early Music Festival were sold out.

The charming city of Riga has a number of fine performing venues, albeit on the small side. Several churches provide admirable settings and the Lutheran church of Sv. Jāņa baznīcā was an excellent venue for a concert of some relatively obscure Baroque music sung by local soprano Elīna Šimkus with the Italian Coin du Roi orchestra led by Christian Frattima. The ensemble is a new Baroque opera company playing period instruments and made up of young musicians under 30, based in Milan. The Coin du Roi staged its first production (Handel’s Serse) in the exquisite Palazzo Litto only last year. Its dynamic director Christian Frattima is also a dedicated musicologist who undertook lengthy research in music libraries in Venice and Naples to track down previously unpublished original early music scores.

An unavoidable problem with period instruments is the amount of re-tuning necessary during a concert but Frattima is adamant that correct intonation is not only desirable but imperative. In deference to the soloist, Maestro Frattima kept the orchestral forces rather subdued during the arias, although the instrumental parts of the programme such as the overture to Handel’s Serse and Vivaldi’s RV432 Flute Concerto displayed the ensemble’s energetic enthusiasm and rhythmic precision. Only the delicate flute playing seemed a little overwhelmed by the ripieno. The devilishly difficult valve-less Baroque horns were wonderfully raspy. 

A product of Latvian choral training, Miss Šimkus eschews intrusive vibrato and the truly beguiling colour of her voice is reminiscent of both Elly Ameling and Arleen Auger. An excellent cantilena and outstanding evenness of tone was evident in Leo’s moving “Manca sollecita” from Il Demetrio. The deep low chest notes on "morir" were plummy and warm and the word colouring on “palpita” simply gorgeous. Similarly Pergolesi’s “Tu me da me divide” from L’Olimpiade was memorable for commendable breath control, effortless legato, sensitive phrasing and a ravishingly pure, limpid tone.

For such an elegant singer with a knockout stage appearance (there must be something in the pure Baltic water which produces such attractive singers) there are still some vocal problems. Diction was also not always precise and trilling was a bit blurred (eg. “Ombra mai fu” from Bononcini’s Serse). The fioratura sections and roulades, especially in agitato forte passages such as the middle section of Handel’s “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare, were also somewhat laboured. On the other hand, the top register in the same aria was impressive with some sparkling high G sharps. At this stage of her career, the voice is still quite small, though perfectly suited to intimate venues with chamber ensembles. 

Šimkus has a remarkable vocal range and in the final fireworks aria “Dopo un'orrida procella” from Vivaldi’s Griselda, she went from a low F natural to top C in the da capo – a two and a half octave stretch. This is Farinelli-like virtuosity with Emma Kirkby’s crystalline vocal purity.

Such an unusually extended range was again evident in a most original encore piece, which was recently composed for Šimkus by conductor Christian Frattima. Entitled "Fra l'orror della tempesta" to a text by Metastasio, it is written in late-Venetian bravura Baroque style and provided a perfect conclusion to an evening of early music which was in all respects delightful, delicious – and as Cole Porter would add, de-lovely.