Thursday, 28 February 2013

For O, for O, the Hobby-horse Is Forgot

Few works demonstrate the dramatic power of Harrison Birtwistle's instrumental rituals than the stunning For O, for O, the Hobby-horse Is Forgot for six percussionists from 1976. It's a piece you need to see as well as hear.

Taking its title from Hamlet ("..he shall suffer not thinking on, with the hobby-horse, whose epitaph is, 'For O, for O, the hobby-horse is forgot."), it conjures up a dumb show analogous to the "play within a play" within Shakespeare's drama. A King and a Queen, two of the percussionists placed at either end of the stage, direct the other four percussionists, placed centrally as a group, in an elaborately choreographed "ceremony", all the players making use of their sticks for mime as well as for music. The effect is not  remotely gimmicky. As for the music, well, the play of pulses from the unpitched percurcussion, as so often with Birtwistle, gathers pace and complexity as it proceeds, reaching an extraordinarily exciting central climax, before returning to something starker towards the end. 

For me, this masterpiece is a riveting and beautiful experience. In some ways it has the character of an Eastern ritual, or Chinese opera; in other ways it's thoroughly modernist - a mingling of ancient and modern that Xenakis, the composer Birtwistle often seems closest to, was also able to achieve. You might want to compare Birtwistle's For O, for O, the Hobby-horse Is Forgot with the Greek's glorious Pleiades. You will surely hear the similarities in sensibility between the two composer. Birtwistle is not copying Xenakis though. The Xenakis was written in 1978, two years after the Birtwistle.

Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini

Amidst all the lightly worn ingenuities and the late-style dryness of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - a dryness that at times reveals a surprising kinship with Prokofiev - there is also found the 'Old Believer' Rachmaninov, dreaming , chanting and, above all, singing with the fervour of a true Romantic. When many people think of the piece - and when it appears (massively abridged) on pop classic compilations - they tend to only think of the the variation that exemplifies this Romantic side - the 18th.

This is the variation where the beloved Rachmaninov of the Second Piano Concerto is re-born. Without such passages might not the Rhapsody be languishing alongside the Fourth Piano Concerto in the cupboard where composers' Cinderella works are put away? Possibly, although you would hope not as the other 23 variations contain gem after gem. 

Before we hear the theme itself, based, on course, on Paganini's 24th Caprice, Variation I presents its bare bones - an ingenious idea. The theme then enters on violins, against which the piano points out those self-same bones again before putting some flesh on them, brilliantly. The early variations flash by engagingly then, with Variation VI we enter a new, dreamier landscape - albeit one with bags of sparkle still. This is followed by a lovely variation where we meet the Rhapsody's second theme - the Dies Irae chant that ran like a leitmotif through the composer's output. Here is it set in counterpoint to the Paganini theme. Variation VIII is exciting and somewhat Brahmsian while its successor is chase-like music. This build-up of  energy climaxes in Variation X with the Dies Irae's return.

A pause, and then Variation XI. This is rhapsodic, with string tremolos setting a melancholy stage for the pianist's improvisatory flourishes. The Minuet variation that follows is melodically attractive. Variation XIII is an excellent, furious waltz and Variation XIV is just as gripping - a veritable cavalry charge of a movement! After a glinting, smiling scherzo comes an idyll featuring a pastoral oboe a lark-like part for solo violin. Variation XVII couldn't be a greater contrast - chromatic, sombre and sinister. It's an inspired stroke on Rachmaninov's part as it gets us in the mood for a return to the light....

and in Variation XVIII the light floods in with the piano's soft singing of the composer's best-known tune (an inversion of the Paganini theme). The strings then sweep in and take it over, singing with full throat to the accompaniment of the soloist's rich, resonant arpeggiated chords, climaxing with thrilling ardour then ebbing away gradually, like a sunset. A final tender reminder of the tune is the final masterstroke. The way this variation is 'staged' is unbeatable.

After this ultra-Romantic 'slow movement' in miniature comes the glittering finale comprising the final six variations. It offers the listener lots of virtuoso piano playing - and virtuoso composing. Pizzicato strings meet staccato piano first. Then the forest of strings seethes against heroic figures from the soloist. A fast tumble of rhythms leads to a climactic march variation, in which the Dies Irae returns, followed by the final pair of variations, both of which sparkle with colour and cadenza-like writing for the piano. Lest the Dies Irae's final appearance may strike too dark a note, the throw-away closing bars are guaranteed to leave the listener smiling.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Mozart's Symphony No.39

Of Mozart's three final symphonies (Nos.39-41), all written in the matter of weeks during the summer of 1788, the Symphony No.39 in E flat major, K543 has always had something of a Cinderella status. I've never understood why. I love it.

The moody grandeur of its slow introduction might lead you to expect a solemn work. Stern fanfare-like figures (in block chords), marked by a dotted rhythm which comes to dominate this Adagio section, ring out answered by rapidly-falling scales. Pounding drums add to the powerful effect of  this darkly sonorous canvas. High violins respond with a fragile-sounding plea, but the dotted rhythm re-enters as an ostinato as the woodwinds lead the music through various harmonies, soon beating out the rhythm even louder. A sharp dissonance (C against D flat) sounds out at the passage's glowering climax before the introduction enters a mysterious and chromatic phase (cast in canon) - remarkably forward-looking harmonies for their time. What are we hearing here? The Stone Guest summoning Don Giovanni to Hell? The composer summoning us to a symphony of storm and stress? Ah, no. The Allegro section begins. First violins, echoed by horns, announce the main theme. Its first three notes rise through the tonic triad, just as Johann Strauss's Blue Danube does. We can relax. This is going to be a heavenly symphony, not a hellish one. That theme is a first-rate one. Mozart immediately repeats it, with subtle alterations. A strong clarion-like tutti with a virile run-on for the strings begins the transition to the dominant - a transition achieved through the working-out of a sequence. This sequential passage is to be important in the coming development section. Do you recognise its ingredients? They are the dotted rhythm and rapidly-falling scales of the slow introduction. The second subject group begins with a somewhat mysterious floating theme, partly expressed by the strings and partly by the woodwinds, before blossoming lyrically and beautifully. An exciting closing passage leads to the repeat of the exposition and then to the short development section. This, as mentioned earlier, works on the sequential figure of the transition (and the introduction), though it seems most intent on working on material from the second subject group. The recapitulation runs true, so to speak, and there's a short, vibrant coda to finish.

The main theme of the second movement Andante is given to the strings and is a dialogue between two short dotted phrases. Mozart initially presents it simply, almost coyly, but it grows in warmth and subtlety as the movement proceeds, becoming especially beautiful in the second half. Though beginning serenely, it turns to the minor and is disturbed by a passage of storm and stress, heralded by two bars for winds. These two bars also form the basis for the movement's most magical passage as a drone effect is established and the woodwinds develop their little idea into something contrapuntal and very, very special. (You'll recognise the phrase by the repeating notes at its start). The main theme then returns with some lovely new counter-melodies, as if lovely new shoots are emerging from the stem of a flower. There are also some remarkable modulations here, especially when the storm and stress passage re-appears. The very, very special idea is recalled before the movement sings itself to a close with the final return of the main theme on strings. What a movement!

The grandly aristocratic Minuet begins forte with its main theme - a big swinging tune that quickly lodges itself the memory and the affections. The trio section is a rustic ländler with a tune for the clarinet, accompanied by the babbling of another clarinet (playing in its low chalumeau register). Touches of flute and horn sonority add to the genial delightfulness of this irresistible folk-like passage - music which doesn't seem a million miles away from Stravinsky's Shrovetide Fair. The rhythm seems decidedly waltz-like to our ears. As we know, the waltz (in part) grew out of the ländler

The Finale is a sonata form allegro. The spirit of Haydn seems closest here. Its theme is a cheerful one, introduced by the first violins with only the second violins for accompaniment at the beginning. This theme dominates the movement, which is why is can be called 'monothematic'. An exciting transition hurries us on and drops us at the second subject - a variant of the first, also played by the first violins, though with delightful replies from the woodwind. A lively codetta, ending with more workings on the main theme leads to the exposition repeat and then the development section - a dramatic section notable for some striking modulations and a delicious bassoon-led transition to the recapitulation (to which the bassoon adds counter-melodies). The coda isn't really a coda, merely an extension of the codetta of the exposition, but it brings this great symphony to a vigorous close. You are likely to hear both the development and recapitulation sections repeated, as the composer recommended. A good idea in my books too. 

It's astonishing to think that this symphony, along with Symphonies No. 40 an 41 were all written within the space of just seven weeks and three days. Mozart was clearly on fire!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Webern I: Viewpoints, a Passacaglia and a Symphony

We seem to be observing a paradigm shift in how Anton Webern is seen. I have in my collection two BBC Music Magazine Composer of the Month articles on Webern. The first from some 20 years ago presented the 'old' view of Webern as a cerebral, dry, detached, anti-Romantic composer determined to break with tradition. This was the Webern of the post-war avant-garde, appealing to the brain of the listener. The more recent BBC Music Magazine article, however, projected a very different Webern - a 'new' view which sees Webern as a lyrical, poetic composer intent on bringing expressive warmth to Schoenberg's new system (twelve-tone serialism) - a composer who looked inward but aimed for the heart. 

This 'new' view make strike some of you as the less convincing one, given what you've heard of the composer's music; however, I've long loved Webern's music and I feel a good deal of sympathy for this take. Many of the pieces in the first half of Webern's 31-work opus list are clearly expressive given their expressionist tendencies. According to the composer himself, quite a few of them were written in grief for the death of his mother and - in sympathetic performances - you can hear the depth of feeling in them, despite their modernistic language. What though of the twelve-tone works from the second half of his opus list, with all their ingenious counterpoints, their spare gestures, their restraint? Well, these can be heard as marking the full return of lyricism to the composer's music, after his earlier excursions into pointillism and expressionism. These can be experienced as the overheard private thoughts and feelings of the composer. It's possible to hear their counterpoint, which always owed something to Bach and the Renaissance masters, as being essentially as personal and lyrical as Schumann's late flowering of canonic and fugal writing - a part-mystical/part-sensual love of beauty underlying it all. It is, it hardly needs saying, a very different-sounding kind of lyricism to Schumann's, but it is lyricism all the same.

How does this square with the 'old' view, the view I grew up with while listening eagerly to my Boulez boxed set of the complete works with opus numbers? Well, it doesn't square up at all. Still, the fact that I was getting to know Webern through the eyes of Boulez may well be the key to this question. The post-war avant-garde, of which Boulez was the leading figure, presented a view of Webern as an uncompromising, logical, revolutionary composer who eschewed old-fashioned expression in favour of geometry - the Mr. Spock of modern music! As Webern was pretty much unknown until their adoption of him as their patron saint, the avant-gardists had free reign to create and project Webern in their own image. Boulez's performances of Webern seem designed to bring out the Austrian's kinship with the Frenchman. This may well be a convenient imposition of the Frenchman's (then) cool, some might say chilly aesthetic on the by-then-dead Austrian. The Boulez view and the Webern performance style that resulted from it proved very influential. They won Webern the devotion of many significant composers (including Stravinsky), who felt themselves to be building on his discoveries. It also won him the eternal devotion of a relatively small number of listeners, including yours truly. However, though some of us have long been enthusiastic about Webern, most other listeners have never really warmed to the composer's music; indeed, many listeners are put off by it. What then if it's the wrong approach? What if it's a malign influence, obscuring the 'true' Webern from full view, resulting in us hearing him through a glass, darkly?  Might such a romantic take on Webern bring audiences flocking to hear him?

Well, I wouldn't want to overstate it. I fell in love with a lot of Webern pieces thanks to Pierre Boulez and his musical friends, but a glimpse of what could be missing from 'old' view performances of Webern can perhaps be had from hearing two different recordings of one of the works of Webern that I never really warmed too - until very recently. This is the Passacaglia, Op.1

All the Boulez's coolness in the world can't disguise this piece's debts to Brahms and Mahler, but it can subtract from its romanticism and, above all, its impressionism. Webern learned a lot from Debussy (though he didn't seem to mention it very often!). His debts to Debussy and his love for Mahler can be heard very clearly in the Passacaglia, if the conductor chooses to play it in such a way as to bring these qualities out - rather than play it as if it's an early piece by Boulez. 

It was Herbert von Karajan's masterly and poetic performance of the Passacaglia that made me fall in love with it. The work no longer sounds like a dry expressionist take on the finale of Brahms's Fourth Symphony. It sounds like something that speaks to the heart - deeply expressive, angst-ridden but beautiful:

Now, contrast that with Pierre Boulez's quicker and rather more sharp-toned take on the same piece:

Both are fine performances, but they reflect different sensibilities - one romantic, the other anti-romantic. Which do you prefer? You can tell which one I prefer! We need a large number of recordings of Webern's output from conductors who come from contrasting perspectives on the composer. I get the feeling that, decades on, we're still only discovering Webern. 

The piece itself stalks in quietly with a bare presentation of its 8-bar ground bass. As befits a passacaglia, this ground repeats over and over as variations proceed on top of it. If you find yourself losing the ground bass as the piece goes along, then that's because it eventually begins rising up from the bass into the higher parts of the score and then, in the extended coda, gives way as the music frees itself to go new places - or revisit old places - without it (for the most part). The work is in D minor, though it strays well beyond it - as you might expect. 

Let's leap forward to serial Webern and my favourite piece by the composer, in the LSO recording by Boulez that I've always loved:

The Symphony, Op.21 can be described as severe and anti-romantic, being a short two-movement piece scored for small forces; however, it's always struck me as being the twelve-tone piece of Webern that pro-romantic music lovers could take to like wine lovers to a fine shiraz if they allowed themselves to let their hair down a bit. The spell-binding first of its two movements has always struck me as being flooded by a feeling for beauty. Boulez himself would surely acknowledge the beauty of balance and symmetry found in the movement; but, as his magical recording reveals, there's also the beauty of sound, melody, counterpoint and harmony. The quality that has always struck me about it, though, is its lyricism. It sings. (Even if he wouldn't acknowledge it in words, Boulez's performance reveals that he is well aware of that.) If you don't know the movement, please listen to it a few times in a row (no pun intended). You will surely fall under its spell. It might help you to know that it is in binary form, with each half immediately repeated. So that's an AABB structure. After this gorgeous and, by the standards of late Webern, extensive first movement, the short and quick-moving second movement stands as a striking contrast. It's so short, quick-moving and capricious, that it too needs a few listens. It is, however, a delight. It takes the form of a set of variations on a theme. The variations come thick and fast, but - my goodness! - are inspired. For such a short piece, Webern's Symphony never seems to lose its ability to intrigue. I've heard it Lord knows how many times (I dread to think quite how many!) yet I still keep discovering new things in it.

The beauty and mastery of Webern's Symphony was such that even Paul Hindemith, who was generally out of sympathy with Schoenberg's serial innovations, clearly felt the allure of this piece nonetheless. You can hear him conducting the work here:

Hope you share my and Hindemith's enthusiasm for the Symphony!

Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923-2013)

Sad to hear of the death on Friday on the great German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch. He was 89. His name was a guarantee of quality on any performance. R.I.P.

Wagner: Die Walküre, Act 1:

Schubert: Symphony No.9 ('Great'):

Schumann: Symphony No.4:

Strauss: Don Quixote:

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Schumann and Paganini (1)

Paganini's ultra-virtuoso 24 Caprices, Op.1 were published in 1820 - remarkably, the only works he ever published. They've exerted a strong gravitational pull on violinists ever since. A similar pull has also been exerted on composers, ranging from Brahms to Blacher, Lutosławski to Lloyd Webber and Rachmaninov to Ruders - though these have tended to focus on only one of the Caprices, namely the famous 24th Caprice. The early Romantics cast their net a little wider. Keeping with the subject of recent posts, I want to look at an early, underplayed opus by Robert Schumann.

Anyone expecting the colour and high-wire dazzle of Liszt's arrangements of Paganini might be rather disappointed if they are hoping to find the same qualities in Schumann's Six Studies on Caprices of Paganini, Op.3. In comparison with Liszt, Schumann's arrangements sound modest. Being Robert, he was more keen to bring out the poetry of Paganini's pieces, though his arrangements don't deny the importance of virtuosity in the originals. Some at the time - and others since - have seen only shallow flashiness in Paganini's Caprices. Not Schumann though.

Schumann heard Paganini performing on Easter Sunday 1830 and his socks were well and truly knocked off.  A couple of years later, aged 22, came these six studies. 

The first study is based on Paganini's 5th Caprice. It begins and ends with swirling scales and arpeggios but in between comes a fine scurry that, close transcription as it is, shows me that Schumann's developing style drew more on Paganini's influence than I'd suspected, especially in the composer's dizzying allegros. Schumann adds some octave doubling.

The second study - based on Paganini's 9th Caprice, usually known as La chasse, evoking (as it does) flutes and hunting horns - is well known in Liszt's hands. Liszt's large hands sent the tune echoing magically across the keyboard. In Robert's smaller hands, La chasse becomes charming and poetic. He adds some octave doubling and a left-hand accompaniment.

Poetry is a particularly marked feature of the third study, based on Pagagini's 11th Caprice. Schumann cuts  the original down to size and then fills it with intimate feeling. 

The fourth study is based on Paganini's 13th Caprice nicknamed as The Devil's Laughter. You won't miss the laughter in the outer sections and the diabolical eruption at the movement's heart (though Paganini's original sounds far more devilish). There is fair a modicum of attractive piano colour in this study.

Though Robert Schumann isn't a sound painter with incipient Fauvist tendencies, his colouring of the opening of the fifth study, based on the 19th Caprice, is magical. This is a highly capricious number.

So far, these have been arrangements. The final study, however, takes Paganini's sweeping 16th Caprice and overlays it with a confident original tune - a theme with a rather Chopin-like heroic character.

Schumann was to return to the Paganini Caprices in his Op.10, but they will do for another day.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

111 Reasons to love Schumann

I love the music of Schumann. I love early Schumann, middle-period Schumann and, yes,  late Schumann. 

The 3 Phantasiestücke, Op.111 are late Schumann. They are truly wonderful pieces, giving the lie (I believe) to the clapped-out old assertion that the composer's mental state sucked the freshness out of his late music. 

The first Fantasy Piece in C minor ('Sehr rasch, mit leidenschaftlichem Vortrag') is one of the most uncanny of all musical storm pieces, full of flashes of lightning and greats swirls of soaking rain. Surely it can be heard no other way? A glorious melody surges through all this dramatic agitation. 

The second Fantasy Piece ('Ziemlich langsam') is the calm after the storm (well, in its outer sections at least). It's in an introspective-sounding A flat major and has a gentle intimacy and a slight air of wistfulness which, added to the hesitancy of its phrases, give it a particularly tender feel. It has a melody of great beauty. The number's middle section is more turbulent - passionate and capricious - but the beauty and restfulness of the opening returns and soothe away this. You would have to have a heart of stone not to hear the warmth of this music. 

The third Fantasy Piece ('Kräftig und sehr markiert') returns us to C minor, this time for one of the composer's extrovert numbers. The secondary section, though capricious, is dreamier. Its material provides the basis for the coda, after we've again been treated to the catchy main tune. 

I find it inexplicable that anyone could find these wonderful pieces cold and laboured. Some people, however, do feel like that about them. You must make your own minds up, though I'd much prefer it if you ended up agreeing with me!

Siren Songs

You may already know and love Robert Schumann's dramatic song Waldesgespräch ('Conversation in the Woods') from the Eichendorff Liederkreis, Op.39, telling of a woodland encounter between a huntsman and a pale but beautiful woman. We hear from the huntsman first. A confident rhythm, a bright major key and horn-imitations in the piano part establish his presence. He offers to lead the lost bride home. Then the key suddenly changes to that of the mediant (the third note of the tonic scale) and the masculine rhythms in the piano part liquify into harp-like mystery. The woman is speaking, and she quietly warns the man to flee. The key and the music swing back and the man continues as before until, to suddenly declamatory phrases, the huntsman realises (in terror) who the beautiful woman is - the witch Loreley. The key stays the same (as we aren't in the age of Nielsen's 'extended tonality' yet!) but the harp-like music returns again and Loreley quietly tells the man he will never leaves the woods. (You can read Eichendorff's poem here).

Loreley was rather out of her usual habitat there. She is to be more usually found seated on a rock on the Rhine, combing her hair and singing, luring sailors to the deaths in the hope of gaining revenge on an unfaithful lover.

Such a scene inspired a famous poem by Heine which Robert's wife Clara was to set to music in Die Lorelei - a highly dramatic minor-key song with an agitated accompaniment that generates both tension and excitement as the inevitable denouement approaches. (The poem can be read here). It's a fine song which, intriguingly, sounds more like Schubert than it does her husband. You may be surprised to hear, given its quality, that Clara's songs was never heard until 1992. Much of her music lay buried in that way.

Robert Schumann was the sort of songwriter who set out to add lustre to already-lustrous poetry. Not always though. His other, hardly-ever-heard Loreley-based song, Loreley, Op.53/2, sets a poem by Wilhelmine Lorenz which most certainly isn't great poetry. (Please have a read of it yourself here). That said, I've long had a soft spot for this short, lyrical song with its gentle, watery accompaniment and tune of radiant simplicity. If you are unfamiliar with it I urge you to give it a try. (Just don't listen to it whilst sailing down the Rhine.)

Monday, 18 February 2013

Latvia VIII: Young Composers

"It is most difficult to create music without involving it with your personal grief, national sufferings, political intrigues, or illustrative scenes. It is a discussion concerning the ecology of the soul. Sounds should speak about external processes, of beauty and the laws of physics, about the untouchable and that which is not possible to explain in words." (Andris Dzenitis) 
In an earlier post, I pontificated about the apparent dearth of avant-garde music from Latvia. Well, a bit of digging around shows that there is an avant-garde tendency in Latvia after all. The tendency has been gathering pace over the last decade and is leading some of the younger generation of the country's composers away from the 'holy minimalist', 'neo-romantic' and 'nationalist' trends that have been the dominant elements in the music of the older generation towards music that draws its inspiration from the post-war Western European avant-gardists. Now that anti-modernist Soviet censorship is history and the urgent imperatives of national liberation have been satisfied, it seems to be the case that some young Latvian composers feel free to follow their own creative urges - as you can see from the quote above from Andris Dzenitis. Perhaps (adding a further layer of speculation), the country's entry into the European Union has encouraged this new outward-looking, pan-European spirit. And now a question: Is the avant-garde in Europe, which has been under threat from the tsunami of 'new tonality' for a couple of decades now, receiving a fresh lease of life from the East?  

Here are some of the young composers driving this new trend, followed by a piece of theirs to illustrate their art:

Santa Ratniece (b.1977)

Fuoco Celeste

Ruta Paidere (b.1977)

Das Feuer wahrnehmen 

Andris Dzenitis (b.1978)

Les Livres de ton Silence   

Austra Savicka (b.1985)

Two Reflections

Laura Gustovska (b.1986)

Warmth Lucidity Peace

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Latvia VII: Ēriks Ešenvalds, again

Well, I've sought out more music by the contemporary Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds in an attempt to gain a broader perspective on his music. I'm very glad I listened -thanks to the promptings of a reader.

Legend of the Walled-in Woman from 2005 is the place to start. The legend is an Albanian one, telling of how two brothers tricked a third into bringing about the death of his wife following a prediction by their mother that their newly-build castle would be safe from invaders if one of them sacrificed a wife. The piece's starting and finishing point is that Albanian folk song and the sounds of its phrases echo over rich drone-like accompaniments at the start. It's hypnotic. The central section gives the lie to any assumption that Ēriks is a simple, easy-to-pigeonhole composer. Here the music begins to move in a way that reminds me rather of Ligeti's Lux aeterna, demonstrating his understanding of avant-garde vocal writing and clustered harmonies, while remaining sumptuously melodically - as if those melodies are echoing in a long and deep memory. The soprano solo (later duet) as we move towards the closing section floats hauntingly. It's a rich and very beautiful piece that packs a considerable emotional punch and must he heard. (For a live performance you might also want to try this).

I was also bowled over by Aizej, lietiņ ('Go Away, Rain!') - a piece for mixed choir, this time based on Latvian folk music.and including an instrumental ensemble which consists of a pair of kokles (Latvian zither-like instruments), reed pipe, accordian and drums. The 'seeing' element is not an incidental one in Go Away, Rain! as Ēriks Ešenvalds encourages movement among the singers as the work reaches its remarkable climax where, drawing on the avant-garde again, a passage of aleatory writing where modal phrases are repeated in an extraordinary polyphony - a joyous, ecstatic clamour - out of which emerges a jubilant-sounding hymn. Before we reach that thrilling point, we've heard the magic solo soprano (in duet with the reed pipe) of the opening and the chorus stirring entry behind her. The accordion launches the delightful second section, a punch-the-air passage with a great tune. Janáček's Glagotic Mass springs to my mind here. And I can think of no higher compliment than that. (For another take on this enchanting piece, please try this).

As you have (hopefully) seen, Ēriks Ešenvalds is a composer capable of moving crowds (in more ways than one). Another remarkable piece of his is Sanākam, Saskanam. A solo singer with violin, mixed choir and ensemble gather together (the choir in potentially infinite numbers!) and so it begins. The process behind it could be said to be minimalist, in that a phrase is set in motion and is repeated with minimum development against a unchallenging harmonic oscillation between two harmonies. The effect, however, is maximalist. Please bear with me as I make a comparison to Ravel's Bolero. The Ravel is one of the most artful masterpieces in music, despite its composer's modesty about it and (some of) the critics' subsequent sniffiness. It is essentially one long crescendo, repeating and repeating but ever subtly changing its colour as it does so. The tension it builds is physical in its impact and when the repetition and the harmonic stasis is suddenly heaved into a new key the effect is electrifying. Ravel's piece then hurtles towards collapse. Something similar is happening with Sanākam, Saskanam - except that there is no catastrophe at the end. Far from it. I won't spoil the surprise though. Please listen for yourself and get caught up in the intoxicating event. The meaning of the title eludes me but its sock-it-to-'em effect doesn't! Joy!!

Another captivating piece by our man is Stars, a gorgeous setting of a poem by the American lyric poet Sara Teasdale. The choir project the readily-enjoyable, deliciously-blurred melodic lines and their richly-packed harmonies (like amplified Poulenc) whilst around them, like the stars in the night sky above us, tuned glasses and Tibetan singing bowls cast the spell of eternity - the effect of the latter, though achieved through ancient instruments, is strange, electronic-sounding even.

The illusion of electronics caught me out with A Drop in the Ocean. I assumed the choir were singing against a backdrop of pre-recorded electronic music. Far from it. That strange, whale-like/Northern Lights-like backdrop is achieved by human beings, whistling and breathing. Magically. The modernist effects, which also include counterpointing speech-like and song-like writing, are employed without a trace of pretentiousness and the music's rich tonality is worthy of Britten. This is warm, melodically appealing and (at times) intensely dramatic music based on the words of Albania's most-beloved daughter (as far as the rest of the world is concerned) Mother Teresa. Bless her.

As I've re-listened (and re-listened, etc), the utter magic (and genius) of  Ēriks's unaccompanied O salutaris hostia has hit me more and more. In another of my (probably) unlikely (but spot on!) comparisons, this is  music of Fauré-like intimacy and sensuousness. We are so attuned to the pessimistic, cynical mood of our age that we (I?) perhaps fail to appreciate that contemporary music can hit the heights that music of the past hit so lastingly. This piece will last. It has very little of the avant-garde about it (hence my comments in that earlier post of mine) but, as we care so little (he says optimistically) about ideological positioning these days, I say "Meh!" to that. This is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written.

Talking of Fauré, whose heart-ingrained Requiem is one of music's great treasures, Ēriks Ešenvalds has composed an In Paradisum that partakes of that piece's - and its equivalent movement's - consoling spirit. A choral piece with what in Baroque music would be term obbligato parts for cello and violin. The violin's part (which. at times, draws on modernist playing techniques) has something of the 'bird of paradise' about it. It's another example of the composer drawing on avant-garde techniques for immediately engaging purposes. Not many can pull that off...

...and for a purely instrumental of that, why not try his Eskiz ('Sketch') for violin and piano?

I suspect I've still only just scratched the surface of Ēriks Ešenvalds's music. Plus he's still younger than me (drat him!) and there's bound to be much more magic to come.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Latvia VI: Pēteris Vasks, the Main Man

I'm sure there are many more fascinating Latvian composers out there, and I will keep my eye out for them; however, you will have noticed that one Latvian composer has been missing. It's his time now. Yes, it's the popular contemporary composer Pēteris Vasks (b.1946), above - whose music has spread far and wide, carrying with it the good name of Latvia.

The music of Pēteris Vasks is in a lot of ways the embodiment of so many of the recent trends in Latvian music which I've been trying to outline. It isn't very radical. You could call it conservative even. (Aren't labels annoying?) When it first began getting noticed here in the U.K., I saw review after review slamming the composer's music as empty and reactionary. One headline (if I remember rightly in The Sunday Times) read "Vacuous Vasks". Another critic (I think in the BBC Music Magazine) called his music something like "second-hand Pärt". Yes, even Pärt wasn't widely considered 'a good thing' back then!

This probably resulted (in part) from the general critical antipathy at the time (twenty years ago) towards tonal, non-modernist contemporary music - or at least the kind that wasn't American-style minimalism. Twenty years on and that has all changed. Those critics of 1990 didn't realise that their confidence in what was the 'right' sort of contemporary music to be writing was the last gasp of certainty for an attitude which had prevailed for over thirty years. Composers like Pēteris Vasks helped lead the way in finishing off the old avant-garde regime. Tonality, consonance, tunefulness and writing audience-friendly music that aimed to touch the listener's soul were back and they've swept onwards in this age of globalisation. Whether that's an unmitigated 'good thing' is another question. I'd be happier with as much plurality as possible - the lion of the avant-garde lying down with the lamb of the post-avant-garde, both of them thriving and confident. That's what we now have to some extent, but the avant-garde lion does seem to be being gradually driven out of the pride, leaving all the uneaten lambs behind baaing out their sweet little C major motets. OK, that's enough of that metaphor!! - and more than enough philosophising!! (I might start drawing analogies between all this and the fall of the Soviet Union if I'm not careful. I'm not Richard Taruskin, so I'd better not bother.)

Of course, another reason for that critical disdain (twenty years ago) could have been that the critics simply didn't like the music they were hearing and thought it wasn't very good. There's always that possibility. Taste is very important in music. The music of Vasks won't be to everyone's taste. The music of any of these Latvian composers won't appeal to everyone. I can imagine many of you actively disliking or being bored to death by some of these composers. (Others I find it harder to imagine).

I'm sure there must have been a radical avant-garde in Latvia - indeed, I've read that Vasks started out writing such music and there are traces of it in his music - but it seems to have disappeared without leaving that much of a trace behind. Has it really though? Or is this just a case of looking where the light is? If YouTube and the non-Latvian music world (especially record companies) chose not to bother with it, does that mean it doesn't still exist? I can't tell from here in snowy England.

(Update: Answer, yes there is an avant-garde. It has been growing in the last decade. A later post will introduce some of its leading lights.)

Down to the music. A fairly early (and popular) example of Pēteris Vasks's music is the string orchestral piece Cantabile from 1979. Here we have fully composed, tonal sections of music which strike a strong Mahlerian note, singing out their melodic lines with heavy-laden harmonies and undisguised emotion. These alternative with the sort of 'controlled chance'/'aleatory' passages we find in, say, the music of Lutosławski - though they sound more more 'added on' or 'imposed' (like cries from within or without). This isn't music that aims to appeal to critics and academics. It is aimed squarely at you, the listener, and your emotions. So is Musica dolorosa, written in memory of the composer's sister. The Mahlerian angst couldn't be more directly communicated. And Vasks's Lauda speaks straight to the heart in the other direction, aiming to lift up your spirits.

You will recognise as Lauda grows and develops that it is using folk melodies to build its climaxes. The piece aimed to raised the Latvian spirit too. Folk melody is an element Vasks readily embraces. His gentle, elegiac Cor Anglais Concerto breathes the air of rural Latvia. The Violin Concerto (Distant Light) has folk elements too, though they take their place in a 40-minute span that laments, cries out and consoles.

As in several of the other recent Latvian composers we've encountered, a strong dose of eclecticism can be found in the music of Pēteris Vasks and parts of this Violin Concerto might remind you at various moments of all manner of other composers. Such eclecticism may not be to your tastes. An uncharitable critic from The Times (in the early 1990s) wrote this (of another Vasks piece):
"From this Latvian composer came the mixture so often peddled around the Baltic: spoonfuls of 'holy minimalism', sprinklings of folk song, a visitation from Shostakovich's ghost." 
I can see what he means. That said, holy minimalism can be good. So can sprinklings of folk song. And I wouldn't mind a visitation from Shostakovich's ghost. (I'd like to thank him).

There's a vast amount of Vasks out there in Youtubeland, so I'm going to finish this post here and let you hunt it out for yourselves.

As ever on these journeys, I've found a lot of wonderful, unfamiliar composers and many magical pieces of music. I've enjoyed a huge amount of it, even if I've never quite come across a masterpiece  - or a composer - to place in the highest tier of the Museum of Musical Greatness. Latvian music remains largely hidden from the world, despite Vasks, but there are so many treats to be had from exploring it - in all its variety - that you would be depriving yourselves (as music lovers) if you didn't give the links on these posts a thorough clicking!

Latvia V: An Eclectic Mix

Miscellany time.

Marģeris Zariņš (1910-1993), above, is my first Latvian Neo-Classicist. At times.

I very much enjoyed his Partita in Baroco Style for mezzo soprano and instrumental ensemble from 1963. There's more than a touch of Stravinsky about it; however, it's a touch of two Stravinskys, as it were - the Neo-Classical Stravinsky as if coloured in by the Russian-period Stravinsky. What makes it so different to Stravinsky is its unpretentious good humour. This fascination with turning the music of the past into something 'of our time' continues with his grand Variations on a theme BACH for organ from 1969 - though it strikes a more serious note and partakes rather more of the Romantic age than either the Baroque or the late 1960s. (Reger would have approved).

Apparently however, he also pursued a Kodaly-like path of freshening up the folk-influenced choral music of his country. This may, indeed, have been his greatest legacy. Unfortunately, I can't find many pieces for you to get a decent flavour of this side of Zariņš's output. A lively Madrigal is all I have.

Romualds Kalsons (b.1936), above, is a composer who adapted to several of the major trends of the Twentieth Century, writing in Romantic and folk-inspired styles as well as composing serial and aleatory works, plus penning such Neo-Classical pieces as the inviting Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra of 1982. A likeable vein of Copland-like high spirits and colour is mined in the folk-flavoured orchestral suite Wedding Songs from 1979 (a sort of Latvian Rodeo) - pieces that could well take the composer's name into the concert halls of Britain and America (if we could spread the word!) As indeed could the delightful orchestral Seasonal Ritual Songs of 1985. If any of you have fallen in love with Geirr Tveitt's Hardinger Tunes suites, well, here's something in a similar vein - immensely tuneful, varied in mood and brightly-coloured.  Having eased you in gently, now please try his Violin Concerto from 1977. I bet that opening made you sit up! It's an eclectic work (a reflection of its composer), tonal (but not Romantic) with strange Danse Macabre echoes. From this demanding, modern piece of Romualds Kalsons I'll now spin you 180 degrees round and introduce his Retrospekcija, a score that seems if anything to be echoing the Valse triste of Sibelius, albeit without any modernist over-layering. It's a good, old-fashioned piece of Nordic elegiac writing - or at least it is until the mood changes completely (before going back again)! Another piece by the composer that would give concert audiences a very pleasant surprise then.

Yes, Mr Kalsons is a composer of surprises. I like that, not knowing what you're going to get from piece to piece. Why shouldn't composers try out all sorts of things? Why should they stick to some narrow, restrictive 'personal style'?

What about a piece from him that might be seen to echo Stravinsky's Les noces or Orff's Carmina burana, albeit with a much lighter touch than either? Then please try his Kantāte par mūžīgo braukšanu (translation? According to Google, "Cantata for the Eternal Driving". I've been on car trips like that!). Presumably it's something horse-related. Or what about a Latvian Tango? Or something exotic, like middle-period Szymanowski, then why not try the cantata Atvadvārdi? As I like all these things this is rather like I'm receiving too many birthday presents at once!

Supla Dziesma ('Lullaby') by Maija Einfelde (b.1939), above, is a beautiful folk-song arrangement for unaccompanied chorus of the kind Kodály would have admired (though Ravel's Trois Chansons aren't too far away either). That was one side of her art. A more radical side can be heard at the start of her  Violin Sonata No.1, with its use of microtones and glissandi. Once you pass beyond this opening passage (a sort of violin cadenza) the sonata pursues a somewhat more traditional-sounding path, and pours out pages of passionate if anxious writing before giving way to a more lyrical, inward-looking passage before the movement springs back into action and comes to a dramatic close. (The work's ending can be heard here.) There is much to involve the listener in this piece.

I can't discover whether Imants Kalniņš (b.1941), above, is any relation to the Kalniņš Family, discussed earlier on. Imants is, however, to say the least, a man of many talents. He was for many years one of his country's leading rock stars, writing and performing his own rock songs with the hippyish band 2xBBM (until the Soviet authorities stepped in and stopped them). He late wrote songs for another popular rock band, Pērkons (which also ran foul of the Soviet authorities). He took part in the popular movement which helped end Soviet rule in Latvia and remains a popular figure to this day.

As for his classical music, well, please try the beautiful Blow, wind, blow!, drawn from a film of the same name. It cannot but evoke a quiet rural scene, with winds blowing through reed-beds. It has a delightful folk-song like melody out of which emerges another, even more beautiful one (with doubtless purely coincidental shades of Peruvian folk music!). Enchanting music. However, if you want to hear this composer's rock music side at the same time as you are hearing one of his classical pieces then you might like to try the head-banging first movement of his Rock Symphony from 1972. (You might recognise something from Blow, wind, blow! during its first movement). Its ostinato-powered drive is quite something to hear! The second movement (I'm almost sure of the same symphony!) is delightful, as if a symphony orchestra were performing Romantic film music amid a shower of crystals on a distant planet. (It was written in 1972, such such psychedelic imagery is entirely justified. Well, that's my excuse anyway!) The third movement sets driving rhythms against lyrical, folk-like melodic lines and is just as much fun. Such music, written over 40 years, does seem to anticipate quite a bit of the rockier end of modern American classical music - all those Michael Daugherty, Michael Torke, Christopher Rouse-type pieces.

Georgs Pelēcis (b.1947), above, a Khachaturian pupil, is a name that choral singers around the world are getting to know. The sort of piece you might know him from is Stihira for unaccompanied chorus.  His style is frequently described as "new consonant" - i.e. direct, firmly diatonic and euphonious. From what I've heard of it it's (generally-speaking) somewhat sweeter and more nostalgic in feel than Pärt, or else more Romantic or Neo-Classical. See what you think of the rather Neo-Classical Concertino bianco in C major for piano and chamber orchestra. The first movement has a slight suggestion of Richard Clayderman about it, while the second movement, marked 'Con venerazione', is a gentle prayer-like movement and the finale is a happy, vaguely Michael Nyman-like romp. If you enjoyed that then you will doubtless relish relaxing in the deeply soothing waters of Nevertheless for piano, violin and chamber orchestra - a piece that takes its time to breathe in and out, rising into bliss out of gentle melancholy and continuing to do so for almost hour an hour. It is all about being beautiful and dreamy. Some listeners will find themselves surrendering to it, smiling seraphically as they sip their sauvignon blanc whilst reclining on a soft sofa. Others will be reaching for the hardest liquor they can find and eating the sofa with boredom. I think it's that kind of music. If you want to hear more of the jog-along Michael Nyman-style side of Georgs Pelēcis then I recommend Revelation to you. Some of you will love it.

Pēteris Plakidis (b.1947), above, an exact contemporary of Mr Pelēcis (and a pupil of Jānis Ivanovs), may be seen as occupying a not too dissimilar position on the musical spectrum. His luminous unaccompanied choral piece In Memoriam from 1990 certainly has affinities with 'Holy Minimalism',  with Pärt-like dissonances adding flavour to the "new consonance", though it isn't particularly minimalist and has deep roots in tradition. Mr Plakidis also seems to demonstrate a strong feeling for folk music, as you can hear in his vibrant Mistat Linus (I've no idea about the meaning of the title) and in the genuinely life-affirming Ar dziesmu dzīvībā ('A Song to Life'). All these are choral miniatures of great potential appeal. Miniatures are all I've been able to hear from Pēteris Plakidis, so this may well give us a restricted view of the composer. The instrumental miniatures include two of a kind, Dedication to Haydn and Dedication to Brahms, that remind me somewhat of Schnittke's pastiches of
the styles of classical composers (straight takes with modern tweaks), and Night Conversations - a work that has plenty of "old dissonance" (to coin a phrase) but uses it as part of an eclectic mix (polystylism?) to create a constantly surprising little piece. Oh for a few of his large scale works! 

Aivars Kalējs (b.1951), above, is the organist at (among other places) the famous Dome Cathedral in Riga. Music for keyboard instruments seems to be his thing as a composer and, given his Lutheran background, it's hardly surprising to find such pieces as the grandly shimmering Toccata on the Chorale "Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr" for organ (written in the 1990s) in his list of works. Mr Kalējs is a keen performer of works by the 'French Organ School', as can be heard in that piece - and (explicitly) in his lovely tribute to the composer who opened this very blog, the Postlude in memoriam Jehan Alain. Another attractive tribute to a favourite French composer, the Gymnopédie No.5 (Homage to Satie), carries us to the composer's solo piano music and his Basso continuo with 22 variations - counterpoint with a touch of French style.

Another keyboard-playing Latvian composer Imants Zemzaris, above, was also born in 1951. What can be said about his music, without much of it to go on?

Well, listening to the dreamy melancholy of The Light Springs for violin and alto flute, which alternates between monody (for both players) and a canon-imbued duet, suggests a romantic-impressionist who values beauty and essential simplicity. This lyrical impression is also given by his piano piece, Early in the Morning - a lovely song-without-words - and his Warsaw Triptych No.1 and No.3.

Uģis Prauliņš (b.1957), above, is, like Imants Kalniņš, a man of many talents. If you listen to the Sanctus from his 2002 Missa Rigensis you will hear music written in an attractive "new consonant" style, with plainchant, 'Holy Minimalist' passages, a folk-style melody, plus plenty of lively, sometimes syncopated music. As well as classical music, the composer is involved in progressive rock music and folk music. If you fancy a little classically-tinged 'folk metal' then why not give the Latvian folk music-soaked Paganu Gadagramata a try? (More here). The spirits of the first and second pieces come together strikingly in Odo et Amo. (Howard Goodall would probably love this sort of thing.) An interesting figure.

It's a funny thing that some of the most beloved and enjoyable choral works are setting of the old Latin mass for the dead, the requiem. I would now count among them the Requiem of Ilona Breģe  (b.1959), above. Ilona herself has kindly posted this piece on YouTube so the world of the internet can get to know it and fall in love with it. It is a highly-coloured piece for soprano, tenor, chorus and orchestra that I would place in sound and spirit as being somewhat in the style of Szymanowski and Janáček's great masterpieces of choral writing, the Stabat Mater and Glagolitic Mass. That the piece was only composed in 2009 is, in my opinion, very much neither here not there. If a piece is magnificent, it's magnificent. Simple as that. The first movement is so magnificent it makes my head swim.

Religious works are a strong feature of the output of Rihards Dubra (b.1964), above; indeed, he now writes only sacred works. His music clearly has much in common with that of Arvo Pärt, though he strikes me as a more Romantic composer than the much-loved Estonian. His melodies - partly-chant-like, partly Romantic -  and luminous harmonies, not to mention his Pärt-like play of consonance and dissonance, creates music that is beautiful, soothing and uplifting. A widely-known piece of the composer's is the short unaccompanied motet Oculus non vidit. Here his 'holy minimalism' is at its most minimalist, suddenly blossoming like a time-lapsed spring meadow at the end. It's quite a gem. Choral miniatures seem to abound in the composer's art, including many lovely settings of the Ave Maria. If you can resist Ave Maria V for female voices then you must have a heart of flint! Gorgeous harmonies and finely-sculpted melodies are hallmarks of his work. His Missa Simplex is a piece that suggests an affinity in that respect with the choral works of French composers like Poulenc and Duruflé - the sort of unaccompanied piece beloved of us English and our cathedral choirs - and, as this perhaps implies, Dubra's music is certainly capable of travelling well beyond the borders of his homeland. A piece commissioned by an Indonesian choir for performance in China, Stetit Angelus, has been particularly widely-performed. It is full of lovely effects, such as the suggestions of floating, overwhelming incense.   His Missa de Spiritu Sancto for chorus and organ shows the composer's characteristic fusion of medieval, Romantic and minimalist impulses at work on a larger scale. 

The trend towards Pärt-like luminous "new consonance" continues, if EveningAmazing GraceA Drop in the Ocean,  O salutaris hostiaLong Road and Aiviekste by the potentially very popular  Ēriks Ešenvalds (b.1977), above, are anything to go by. This is the sort of music that choral competitions lap up as singers and audiences love it. The BBC have broadcast Ēriks's music. The composer's feel for simplicity is allied with Latvian traditional music in the composer's Dziesmu Latvija ('Latvia Song'), a string of folk songs presented directly, without the slightest trace of Berio-like distancing. It is a lovely piece - though I can hear modernists gnashing their teeth at its populism. Is Ēriks Ešenvalds a new John Rutter? Just try his Christmas Eve and see what you think.

I hope you're thinking something!

Latvia IV: Hollywood, Soviet-style

OK, moving on then. 1909 saw the birth of Ādolfs Skulte (d.2000), above. His long life saw him make the journey from Tsarist Russia, through Latvian independence, Soviet occupation, Nazi occupation, Soviet occupation again to finally reach Latvia's renewed (and hopefully eternal) independence - though not EU membership. He stayed in Latvia after the Soviets returned and achieved a distinguished career there. Skulte was a fairly prolific symphonist too, with at least nine such works to his name. They are, I think it can safely be said, rather different those of Ivanovs.

I want to introduce his remarkable music to you though with a symphonic poem, Wellen ('Waves') from 1934, a gloriously turbo-charged piece of musical impressionism depicting the majestic swelling of the sea, with big bold tunes and dense, multi-coloured orchestration. Fun, wasn't it? Oh yes! And the confident optimism of that score can also be found in the composer's substantial String Quartet from 1936 - a piece of considerable accomplishment and lyricism in a conservative idiom. It knows precisely what it's doing. Yes, the material doesn't particularly linger in memory but the pleasure of listening to the piece does. It leaves a warm afterglow.

When we next meet Ādolfs Skulte we find him writing music for the Soviet Union, pieces with very Soviet-sounding titles. Eschewing the ethical dilemmas this might involve for the listener by means of the cutting-of-the-Gordian-knot approach of simply ignoring any such concerns, let's encounter some of his symphonies and assess their musical qualities, plunging in with the large-scale Symphony No.1, 'About Peaceof 1954. This is ripe, conservative, dramatic-lyrical music, with romantic tunes sweeping over highly-coloured accompaniments with heroic dash. Before reading the accompanying notes on YouTube the first movement struck me as sounding remarkably like Hollywood film music from the 1940s - a happy convergence of opinions, though (in the circumstances) hardly a surprising one. The whole symphony could have accompanied a Hollywood movie. Two andante movements follow - one marked 'dolento', the other 'cantabile'. One, I presume, evokes war and the other peace. The dark, deep visions of Ivanovs's Fifth or Shostakovich's Eighth have no place here. This is pure entertainment. (If the composer intended otherwise, he didn't succeed!) The closing allegro is exactly what a symphony on such a theme at that time had to have - a happy ending. I have to say, having encountered the striking and rather unusual Waves and the refined String Quartet, I was quite taken aback by this symphony.  High-minded music lovers will probably regard it as pure schlock but I had huge fun listening to it.  

In the wake of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight into space Skulte wrote his Third Symphony, the Cosmic. Unlike Ivanovs, who's music was rediscovering some its bite, Skulte's Cosmic is still close to Hollywood film music, though we've moved into the Hollywood of the 1950s here - so the symphony does sound a little more modern, with even a faint whiff of jazz in the first movement - a section of big tunes, exciting action and Technicolor orchestration intended to stir the listener which, in my case, it does successfully. Then, in the central slow section, the action is suspended and we find ourselves sailing through the ethereal mystery of space itself. Ligeti's Lux aeterna it ain't, however, being instead the sort of music you might well remember from sci-fi films of the 1950s when our hero and his heroine are having a happy moment together while lost in space, looking at the magical universe around them and then into each others eyes! Of course, the finale is all noisy, jolly celebration - the musical equivalent of a ticker tape parade - as Gagarin makes his heroic re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Again that word 'schlock' might come to mind, but it's all such fun and all so expertly done that you'd be being a self-defeating killjoy if you didn't allow yourself to indulge yourself with it!

If you enjoyed those, you'll also enjoy the Fourth Symphony, 'Youth' of 1971. I did. It seems to take us back to 1940s Hollywood again.

Frankly, these  immediately understandable Hollywood-style symphonies from Soviet Latvia are so instantly gratifying as to be rather compulsive. I feel a bit like a chocoholic faced with a huge pile of free, cheap, tasty, fattening chocolates ...and now I'm eating the Fifth Symphony of 1975 and it's such a pleasure doing so. Well might YouTubers compare the style here to that of the Frank Waxman and Bernard Hermann of the early 1950s. This is the classiest Skulte symphony, and definitely a thriller rather than an heroic epic, sci-fi film or a romantic movie.

I'm getting through a lot of popcorn tonight. I'll allow you to watch listen to the Eighth Symphony of 1984 and the Ninth Symphony of 1987 by yourselves. Suffice to say, they're still the same old Ādolfs Skulte - and just as much fun as before. What an extraordinary anachronism his music must have seemed in 1984 and 1987 - if not decades earlier!

Incidentally, Ādolfs's older brother Bruno Skulte (1905-1976), above, was also a composer. Unlike his brother he fled Latvia after the Soviet Union re-imposed its rule on the country after the Second World War, emigrating to the U.S.A. where he established a Latvian chorus and continued to promote Latvian culture. There's very little of Bruno's music available on YouTube, with the opera The Heiress of Vilkaci, an obvious gap. Still, you can enjoy his Bērnu dziesmas ('Children's Songs') - a song-cycle very much in the vein of Mussorgsky's Romantic realism and clearly owing a lot specifically to the great Russian's song-cycle The Nursery. These songs and tasters from The Heiress of Vilkaci suggest that the elder brother might well have been an even more conservative composer than his brother. They certainly whet the appetite for hearing a lot more Bruno Skulte. What though of his Latvian-sounding side? Well, (and go to 2:29 in the video) his Lūgšana ('The Prayer') gives a lovely example of that and, on a more extended scale, his Ganiņš biju is a charming pastoral piece.

The thought has just crossed my mind, as it may have done yours, that there's an irony-laden theme here, in that one brother emigrated to America and the other brother wrote as if he'd emigrated to America.