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Baltic Exchange - Classical Music

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A regular visitor since the lifting of the iron curtain, Stephen Latyon is witnessing a rich stylistic ferment.

Baltic Exchange, the title of the latest Hyperion release from Stephen Layton and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, is much more than a pun on the name of a historic maritime trading organisation.

For the conductor, it sums up the shift in a region’s choral creativity which he has witnessed over nearly two decades. 

‘My first encounter with the region was when I visited Estonia in the early nineties just after the country had been liberated,’ Layton recalls, ‘I met Estonian composers and started guest conducting a few Estonian choirs, and that gave me the bug for the whole thing.’

He saw the Tallinn song field, where hundreds of thousands of singers gather at festival time to perform outdoors, and gradually realised that this was a region where national identity is defined by song.

‘Having got to know Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis, two very different Estonian composers, my passion increased.  But I realised they were the very famous ones, and Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have got hundreds of great composers.  Because of this choral tradition they have very strongly tied in to their politics and national identity, hundreds of composers who have written for the voice.’

It was, he found, very much like folk music – music for the people.  But during the 1990s he also witnessed a fundamental change in that tradition.

‘Before the revolutions, many composers were working in isolation.  Links with the west were not so strong and the music they wrote was perhaps restricted.  When I first went to Estonia and took music by Henry Purcell with me, this was the first time they had heard it, let alone sung it.’

But as the Iron Curtain was thrown open, Baltic composers eagerly immersed themselves in western culture.

‘I think what political freedom has done is widen the palette of composers.  The idea of Baltic Escahneg is to show that it is not just this Baltic music now, it is this exchange also.

If you listen to the music of a composer from Riga such as Uģis Prauliņš, you hear all sorts of western influences – there is techno-type music in there, there is also Abba, there is Adiemus, Thomas Talllis and there is Allegri’s Miserere.  No longer is it just Latvian.’

On the other hand there is Maija Einfelef, a 70-year-old composer who Layton regards not only as truly Latvian but also ‘one of the great living choral composers and one of the great choral composers of all time.’

Her settings of three poems depicting the Latvian landscape conjure up for Layton ‘a soulfulness and bleakness of landscape and if you were to go to visit the lands around Riga it’s all about the Baltic light.  This is like a greyness, but somewhere in the corner of the painting is this shining light that is absolutely devastating.’

But are the western influences leading to a surrender of the diverse Baltic musical traditions to the era of globalisation?  After some thought, Layton demurs: ‘That which seems to be truly Baltic is less and less because it is truly a world music.  But to my ears what is happening is a synthesising and juxtaposition of several styles which in doing that creates yet another style.’

The Latvian embassy in London recently held a reception to thank Layton for his championship of the region’s music and he says of Baltic Exchange: ‘I hope as a result of making this recording people will buy it, buy the music and perform it.  There is a newness and freshness from what we have known.’

As we speak he is wrapping up sessions with the Holst Singers for Ikon II, a follow up to a widely praised Hyperion recording of Russian music.  The Ikon recordings are another effort by Layton to gain a hearing for little-known composers, in this case Russian such as Gretchaninov, Shvedoff and Kalinnikov, whose choral works have been overshadowed by the Rachmaninov Vespers.

But then Layton will return to his Baltic mission with an album of Eriks Esenvalds’ music, performed by Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia.

Much Baltic music sets Latin texts, so he says there are no linguistic barriers for the British choirs, but he insists there are other reasons for exploring this cultural tradition. ‘If I’m proudest of anything it’s that I’m spreading the good news and feeling it’s an important responsibility to keep ears and eyes open and look out for these things.  I’m fortunate that I have excellent performing forces around me to record them, because that is a good way to get the music out there.’

Baltic Exchange
Hyperion Records CDA67747