Choral Works – Hymns & Variations; Four2; Four6; Five
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava
Ondine ODE 1402-2 66:50 mins
John Cage and choral music might seem strange bedfellows, but there was no corner of the musical landscape that this dedicated breaker of composition rules didn’t want to deconstruct. The booklet mentions his famous hatred of harmony, though it still crops up in these unaccompanied choral offerings brilliantly delivered by the Latvian Radio Choir.
The most beguiling pieces date from Cage’s last years, when he mellowed enough to allow sustained notes to briefly form intervals, if never quite chords, before wandering off on their own. With its drifting, otherworldly textures, Five, from 1988, could almost have come from the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey, while Four2, astonishingly written for a high school choir, includes a tonal tenor and bass pairing, oozing quite unexpected calm. The longest track, a choral realisation of Four6, easily sustains 30 minutes with its varied tapestry of laughs, squeaks, growls and trills, though admittedly it helps if you’re not in a hurry and your head’s in the right zone.
That leaves Hymns and Variations of 1979, the perverse result of erasing or stretching the sinewy harmonies of two choral pieces by the 18th century American pioneer William Billings. It’s fascinating for a while, but not when the variations number ten. Even here, though, you can’t but be stunned by the fearless skill of Sigvards Klava’s choir as they navigate the most jagged, fragmented notes and pitches – the musical equivalent of climbing Mount Everest just with your hands and feet.