Review: Latvian Radio Choir, a full-throated vocal celebration

The stunning vocal performance of the Latvian Radio Choir was one of the highlights of the 2015 Sydney Festival. Sydney Festival

Swedish director Kay Pollak’s film As It is in Heaven (2004) climaxes at a point of musical bliss which is both chaotic and profoundly unifying. Rather than singing a few polished songs with energy in effort to win an international choir competition, the Swedish chorus simply makes any old sound: that is, an “aah”. And they don’t stop.

Soon enough, the audience join in. Everyone stands. Boundaries between choir and spectator are dissolved. Young and old together. The pitch-perfect with the wildly flat, all one in the oceanic mesh of sound. Aah! Ecstatic dissonance: moans and tones of all volumes.

Tears are shed. Such is the power of music – the art to which, Schopenhauer once famously said – all art aspires. There is something particular about the human voice as instrument; its impact haunts like the wind.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this moment in Pollak’s film while attending the first ever Australian performance of the Grammy award-winning Latvian Radio Choir at Angel Place for this year’s Sydney Festival. Those who weren’t lucky enough to attend the live performance can hear the recital broadcast on Classic FM here.

Let me get straight to the high points: there were two – the rumbling and windswept sound sphere of a song by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, entitled, Muoayiyoum; and the encore, an old Latvian folk tune, The Nightingale, sung in full-throated ease.

The latter was a much-needed release of melody after a powerfully unusual concert, one that was intensely sober, and at times somewhat mournful. It was as if one had been bent into various contortions over a series of complex pieces, and was suddenly let out to play.

But I digress.

Muoayiyoum – which you can listen to below on YouTube – is a sound experiment in eco-harmonics. It is a meditation on the reverberations made possible by the human mouth: the lips, tongue, palette and throat, the pharynx, larynx and oesophagus, diaphragm and gut.

Yet it is more than this: it is minimalism, an egoless, wordless, arresting and rhythmic hum-scape. It is organic, finding its own shape and meaning the moment each syllable and vowel is sung. It swells in sound and builds in intensity and heals like a single kiss. Listen to it. Like Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Allium, a motet of 40 voices in 40 parts, this song is only possible with an entire choir.

It is truly a miracle. A startling event that is a privilege to witness and hear. One might ask: How does Sigvards Kļava, choir director, and his Latvian choir pull it off?

The Latvian Radio Choir in performance. Sydney Festival

Well, it seems, with a great deal of work. The Latvian Radio Choir rehearse full-time and are consummate professionals who have been performing non-stop since their inauguration in 1940. There was clearly an urgency to assert an artistic identity as Latvia lost its independence to the Soviet Union and then to Nazi Germany in the same year.

As one of Europe’s leading choirs, they have carved out one of the most distinctive musical identities around. These days, their idea is to push the limits of the human voice. They’re as cutting-edge as it gets in choral-terms and they tour the world.

The programming was deft and deliberate – like a superbly-planned meal where appetites are whetted with the most specific of flavours that are paired with matching wines – the tones and keys tuned the ear for what was to come, delectations of every sort, mostly unexpected. It is true that the tension in the packed hall was high; the audience was spellbound and the sense of drama, palpable.

Four of the pieces were musical deconstructions. Conventional choral pieces were suddenly taken over by the experimental interventions of a European composer. Sacred songs were met with clashing notes, changing pulsations and agitating dynamics.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s was music transformed into an innovative riff by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt. Henry Purcell’s Hear my Prayer Lord was soon infected with notes of strange despair by Swedish composer, Sven-David Sandström.

Gustav Mahler was not immune to the musical deconstructions either. German composer Clytus Gottwald unpicked the tonality of I am Lost in this World and unravelled it. French composer Gérard Pesson distorted one of Mahler’s hymns into an ode to skepticism and existential anguish.

The line-up ended with Pēteris Vasks’ Zīles ziņa, one of the more impressive pieces of the evening. Surprisingly, Vasks was the only Latvian composer to feature in the program. With many members of Sydney’s Latvian community in attendance, one hopes they were not disappointed at the rather un-Latvian repertoire.

But Vasks’ piece made up for this: it was exciting, varied, and aleatory; sounds bordering speech were interspersed with melodic resonances akin to that of Zbigniew Preisner, Poland’s much-loved contemporary composer.

Each song was sung with astonishing technical brilliance. The only time I can recall being so captivated and surprised by a concert such as this was Steve Reich’s 2012 visit to Sydney Opera House, when six hours vanished in an instant.

Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt – a favourite of mine – featured twice in the program as a tribute to his 80th birthday this year. In an interview with Hermann Conen, Pärt said:

I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism is the spirit of the listener.

You could almost hear the audience listening, such was their devoted attention – they were co-participants, immersed in all the colour.

The Latvian Radio Choir played at the Sydney Festival on January 23 and 24. Details here. You can hear the recital broadcast on Classic FM here.