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State Choir Latvija: Sempiterna, Choral music by Rhona Clarke

The works on this album range over 30 years of composing for Clarke. The sleeve notes say that Clarke was 15 when she joined the Lindsay Singers, a female-voice choir in Dublin and sang during her time as student in University College Dublin and her PhD studies at Queen’s University Belfast.

“This long engagement with choral singing gave her a real ‘insider knowledge’ of how to write effectively for choral voices,” say the notes, and at first listen through we – as far from choral singers as can be – could envisage singers in decent amateur choirs getting excited at the modern but technical sound of the recorded singers.

Clarke writes with a “strong sense of the choral tradition” say the sleeve notes, frequently setting Latin texts, and the sound reflects this, often sounding like choral music from the 15th century or somewhere equally dim and distant but with a modern feel.

Opener O Vis Aeternitatis is based on a chant by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179 or thereabouts) so sounds ancient and starts the album off with a sense of gravity (the words centre on the power of eternity, that power always giving weight to choral works). It is followed by Two Marian Anthems, in part inspired by Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet, and more modern, initially upbeat but then more introspective.

Ave Atque Vale begins with a dramatic foot-stomp and is atmospheric. It is inspired by a Catullus’s poem, an outpouring of grief on the death of his brother, and is one of five works composed to be inserted between movements of Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell. Dramatically funereal.

But you also need ones to send the audience home smiling, as William Shakespeare said, so after this comes Make We Merry, three carols on medieval texts, both authentically medieval and cheerily modern in sound; if the BBC wanted some Christmas Eve music that was both suitably reverent but also entertaining, it could do worse.

Requiem (2020) goes back to the face of eternity; it was composed during lockdown but had nothing to do with the pandemic, it was just what she wanted to do. It is the core of the album both in length and in that it’s Clarke at her peak; breath-taking in parts.

Out on Metier, msv 28614.

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