Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Latvia I: Early Days

It's time for me to venture out into the wide world of classical music again. Instead of crossing the Andes or the Caucasus, I'm staying inside the European Union and sailing across the Baltic Sea to Latvia. It's time for me to explore Latvia because, beyond a few names I've read over the years, I've never heard anything other than Pēteris Vasks - by far the country's best-known composer beyond its borders. As these journeys always throw up remarkable music by composers the rest of the world ought to know, I hope you'll find it a worthwhile if, probably, rather sketchy survey and will dip in as you please.

The first major figure in Latvian music, my researches tell me, was Jānis Cimze (1814-1881), above.. It was he who raised unaccompanied choral music and professionalism onto the stage of his people's culture - a stage they've excelled on ever since. Folk songs arrangements and choral songs are a key part of his output, which is what I believe we're hearing in his glorious Jāņu dziesmas Vidzemes apgabalos ('Midsummer Songs from the Vidzeme Region'). 

Kārlis Baumanis (a.k.a. Baumaņu Kārlis), above, (1835-1905) is best known for writing the Latvian national anthem, Dievs, svētī Latviju! ('God, Bless Latvia!'), but apparently this teacher and nationalist also wrote the first ever song to feature the word 'Latvia' in its lyrics. I've not been able to locate that (as far as I'm aware!), but the the quality of his music might be gauged from a winning unaccompanied choral miniature like Jāņu dziesma ('Midsummer Song'). It's hard to judge, of course, on such a small sample of a composer's output.

Jāzeps Vītols, a.k.a. Joseph Wihtol (1863-1948), was taught by Rimsky-Korsakov and. He went on to teach Prokofiev, as well as a few of the composers we are to meet later in this survey (including Ivanovs and A. Skulte). He was a leading light in inter-war independent Latvia's music and fled the country when the Soviets re-asserted themselves towards the end of his life. His remains were taken to his homeland after it regained its independence in the 1990s. As you might expect from that potted biography, the composer's music is rooted in a conservative Romantic nationalist style owing much to the Russian example which injected with Latvian spirit, often through the infusion of Latvian folk music elements.

He wrote the first Latvian symphony (1886-8), his Symphony in E minor - a work wherein the example of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov (and his circle) can be heard most clearly - something which is only to be expected in a young composer's work. Though it isn't an undiscovered masterpiece, the Symphony is a highly competent piece that should appeal to anyone who likes, say, the Borodin symphonies or the Tchaikovsky orchestral suites. The second subject of the first movement is particularly charming. The Piano Sonata in B flat minor, Op.1, his first published work, dates from around the same time and is an accomplished Romantic sonata of the Russian Empire's Silver Age (the one that followed the Golden age of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, etc), revealing the influence of Golden Age composers, principally Tchaikovsky. Its first movement has a Rimsky-like theme which the composer modulates engagingly, especially during the harmonically somewhat ambiguous development section. The second movement is a theme and variations on a simple tune, which it takes through many a brilliant by-way (plus the odd gentler one) as the movement proceeds. If you liked that then you will also like Vītols's Three Silhouettes, Op.38though they are a lighter affair. Similarly conventional but showing the Russian influence again is the romance-like song Mirdzas dziesma (nope, can't translate that beyond 'song'!)

Those pieces all show the composer's Russian training in action, so what of the Latvian side of his art? Well, a short but attractive introduction to this side of the music of Vītols is the Latvian Folk Song Suite. We are a long way from Bartok here, as the idiom remains resolutely late-Romantic. Likewise  with the Ten Lettish Folksongs, Op.29. Still, these are early pieces and re-affirm that we have found a fine reliable composer whose music will afford the listener many pleasures.

The work which carries the name of its composer abroad (to a certain extent) is Gaismas pils (Castle of Light), an unaccompanied choral miniature that Latvian choirs love to sing at home and around the world - and it's easy to hear why. Another beauty is the short, reverential cantata Jesus at the Well. The latter comes from 1935 and shows Vitols holding on to his conservative idiom, albeit moving well beyond the 'Mighty Handful' sound of a much earlier Latvian nationalist cantata, Beverīnas Dziedonis ('Song of Beverīna').
Further Vitols listening:

Variācijas - Portreti ('Variations - Portraits')

When I heard the Melancholy Waltz of the Romantic Emīls Dārziņš (1875-1910), pictured above, for the first time I immediately thought "Tchaikovsky with a tinge of Sibelius". The echoes are strong but Dārziņš creates a convincing little orchestral piece that should have long ago become a popular classic across the world. It's that good. Sadly, the fates seem to have have rather conspired against it - just as they did its composer  - however popular it may be in Latvia. Reading about the poor man's fall from grace - due to accusations of plagiarism from the works of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius - followed by his probably resultant suicide makes me rather melancholy too. An unhappy marriage, alcoholism, a personality that didn't endear him to many people, including critics - the list goes on. Frailty, thy name is human. 

I've not been able to track down much else by Emīls Dārziņš. There is, however, a melancholy song in the spirit of the Russian romance called Mātes gars (which Google translate tells me means 'Mother Spirit') which strikes a warm chord with me. Also, given the rich choral tradition of Latvia, it's not surprising to find our Emīls writing unaccompanied choral music, such as the lovely Sapņu tālumā ('Distant Dreams'). 

I'm unable to tell you whether the emotional journey of his son, Volfgangs Dārziņš (1906–1962), was a happier one or not (though I'm hoping it was). He lost his father when he was 4, however, so that's hardly a good start. From from I can discover it seems as if he (at some stage) left his homeland of America, but kept writing Latvian nationalist music. Time to be cheerful then: Volfgangs's Piano Sonata No.2 is a captivating piece, an original-sounding fusion of late-Romantic muscularity and Impressionistic delicacy (as if Rachmaninov met Debussy). The harmonies and sonorities of the piece are deliciously imagined. Quite fascinating. I would love to hear more from him, and his father.

Let's go back to Emīls Dārziņš's generation and meet Alfrēds Kalniņš (1879-1951), above, acclaimed as the founder of Latvian national opera. Kalniņš's Romeo and Juliet-like 4-act opera Baņuta (extract only - another extract here) is usually regarded as Latvia's very first opera (though one by Jānis Mediņš, see below, is said to be in with a shout too.) It was composed between 1918 and 1920. The work remains popular in the country and, from what little I've heard of it, I'd place it firmly in the strain of late-Romantic music most associated with Smetana. Talking of Smetana - the composer of Ma Vlast ('My Homeland') - Alfrēds Kalniņš also wrote a piece with that very title, his short symphonic idyll Mana dzimtene. An evocative opening (birds a-twittering in a lovely Latvian landscape), a noble melody, lots of rich brass at climaxes, passing glimpses of rural folk dancing - all are found in this charming patriotic orchestral miniature. For a further patriotic piece why not try the composer's own arrangement of his symphonic poem Latvia for piano duet?

It's hard to assess a composer from a small clutch of small pieces (as Delius enthusiasts will tell you), but our Alfrēds seems like a pleasing composer. As more proof of that, please try his tender Elegy or his Autumn. Kalniņš may not be as great a composer as the mighty Smetana (a big ask), but the Latvians seem to have good reason to be proud of him. As for his son, Jānis Kalniņš (1904-2000), I've even less to go on - just the melancholy Larghetto serioso for violin and piano (a pretty Romantic salon piece).

Another important figure in the development of Latvian national music is Jānis Mediņš (1890-1966), above. Developing ballet and opera in the country were his priorities. Mediņš was a Romantic, as you can hear that from his alternately flamboyant and heartfelt Piano Concerto from the early 1930s - a pleasing if perhaps-too-long piece in the Rachmaninov manner (minus all those individual touches that make listeners appreciate the genius of Rachmaninov). Can we call him the Latvian Rachmaninov? His Aria for orchestra is a warm-hearted miniature that, similarly, is (to put it in somewhat crude terms) bog-standard Romantic lyricism but it will still give many a classical music fan a contenting experience.  Quite what this composer can do is revealing in his lovely unaccompanied choral songs Jānīt's kalnā, Jānīt's lejā, a set which opens with a folk-tune which will already be familiar to you if you listened to Jānis Cimze's Midsummer Songs from the Vidzeme Region earlier, and in the lush, late-Romantic piano miniatures that make up his 24 Dainas ('Preludes'), which do indeed betray a certain similarly to Rachmaninov (though it would be unwise to overstate this). 

OK, I think it's time for a lady next.

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