The composers of tonight’s concert might be Latvian and their inspiration a Catholic saint, but this was music which transcended any national boundaries or confessional differences, leading us on an inspiring spiritual journey of faith. Taking place in the Lutheran “Dome” Cathedral, a neat synecdoche of one of the great icons of the Riga skyline, the Latvian Radio Choir (LRC), accompanied by the Sinfonietta Rīga Orchestra (SRO) under the conductor Sigvards Kļava gave an ethereal rendition of four contemporary Latvian composers (Rihards Dubra, Pēteris Vasks, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Andrejs Selickis) and one Estonian, Arvo Pärt.

Sigvards Kļava © Riga Festival
Sigvards Kļava
© Riga Festival

It was the artistic director and conductor Kļava who came up with the idea of tonight’s programme, Prayer of Mother Teresa. Taking Pēteris Vasks’ two works which are based on texts by Mother Teresa, Prayer and Fruit of Silence, Kļava constructed a concert where all works reflect on prayer, silence and love, key elements in the life and work of this saint. In Kļava’s own words, “this is a story about the power of faith and the source of inspiration”.

A bell chiming slowly opened Dubra’s Silence, Love and Light before the sopranos entered with slow sustained pianissimo notes. Constructed on a loose tripartite structure, the opening section, with its hypnotic sustained notes and atmospheric bells, reflected the idea of finding God in silent prayer. In an animated section, Kļava brought out the intensity of the music as the LRC sang passionately in unison. There was a whiff of “O Fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina Burana here as the unison voices arched ever upwards amidst the cascading of bells inspiring a frisson of awe and terror. The sweet tone of the LRC was tinged with an ineffable sadness as they sang “It is only when you realize your nothingness […] that God can fill you with Himself”.

The SRO successfully captured the fervour within the overall gentle canvas of the orchestral introduction to Vasks’ Prayer (Lord, Open our Eyes). Using a text by Mother Teresa, it is a highly expressive work with Bach-like contrapuntal lines, turbulent romanticism and startling dissonances. If in Vasks’ own words that “music has got direct access to the divine” then the part that talks of the hungry and oppressed was a cry to heaven for vengeance. Here, as on so many other occasions, the LRC with scintillating accuracy nailed the shocking clash of A against B flat. Kļava whipped the music to its turbulent climax over a turgid sea of triplets on the strings, while the sopranos soared above harmonies that were “wondrous strange”. As the prayer turned in supplication to “renew us, Lord”, the music was cleansed of its catharsis, the LRC gently unravelling each note until they shimmered for some time on the final Amen.

The Latvian Radio Choir © Riga Festival
The Latvian Radio Choir
© Riga Festival

The only piece not by a Latvian was by Arvo Pärt whose Silouan’s Song is for strings alone, thereby giving a welcome break to the choir. Here the finely graded dynamics and tonal variation that Kļava elicited from the SRO greatly impressed; at times, gently coaxing the sound from the cellos, at others garnishing a richer, warmer sound when needed.

Ešenvalds’ A Drop in the Ocean uses Mother Teresa’s own variation on the well-known text by St Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me a channel of your peace”. Opening with the Lord’s Prayer chanted by the altos there was a gentle lilt to the sopranos’ countermelody. Throughout, there were atmospheric whispers and low whistles. When the text mentions “sadness and darkness, doubt, injury, hatred and despair” the LRC built up to an unbearable, cacophonous sound, before breaking free into long flowing lines of complex polyphony at “I may bring light”.

There was quite a touch of the folk idiom to Andrejs Selickis’ Litany to Mother Teresa with its opening bagpipe drone in Part 1 “Bride of Jesus” and the soprano’s solo micro-pitch variation and the regional, Latgalian dialect used in Part 3 “Prayer”. The “Litany” of Part 2 started off with the shy pipping of Gregorian chant and as it progressed so did the crescendo until the choir blazoned forth with the thrice repeated “Bless Latvia”.

Given the central role of Vasks’ music in the inspiration for this concert, it was fitting he should end the evening with another of his compositions, The Fruit of Silence. Romantic and soulful, Kļava allowed the music to open up gently and yet sufficiently expansively for the SRO and the LRC to luxuriate in their wonderful harmonies. Aloft the choir's sustained notes and the passionate violins’ counter melody we were carried off to a heavenly realm.

Up until this, no applause had been forthcoming as if it was understood that this was not so much a concert as a profound prayer. Slowly, as Kļava lowered his hands, we started to applaud, moved to our very being.

 

Andrew Larkin’s press trip was funded by Latvia Concerts.

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