A cappella choral writing, approached through traditional techniques of composition, is one of the supreme challenges of musical composition.
Restricted to the ranges and textures of the human voice, writing for unaccompanied choir offers few resources beyond absolute counterpoint, which may be why this medium is in so many cases the vehicle for the most direct musical statements of a composer's oeuvre—or it may be because of the immense weight of the musical history behind it.
Music for chorus a cappella is as old as notation itself, and composers who turn to these forms find themselves confronting century after century of masterpiece.
A composer who wields symphonic forces with the ease of Einojuhani Rautavaara would seem to be sacrificing a great deal by restricting himself to voices alone, but a new collection of his works, just released on the Finnish label Ondine, is a satisfying listen. This is partly thanks to the integrity of the meticulously worked material, partly thanks to the wealth of colors Rautavaara is able to elicit from unaccompanied singers, such as the sensational glissandi of the Psalm of Invocation.
It's also because the Latvian Radio Choir, under the leadership of Sigvards Kļava, brings symphonic oomph to the material, with a trombone-like low end and solid sopranos. The Missa duodecanonica is written, as the title might imply, in a twelve-tone style. The quasi-tonal language might make it easier for uninitiated listeners to engage with, but the resulting labyrinth of chromaticism hardly makes it any less difficult for unaccompanied singers. Even their English, a difficult enough language for native speakers, is impressively clean.
Rautavaara's style here ranges from the richly sensual to the monastically pure, but however he approaches it, material is unfailingly lovely and solidly built. At once exceedingly clear and complex, the motets and masses he has assembled here suggest that the mantle of history sits easily on his shoulders.
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