Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Latvia III: Ivanovs, THE Latvian Symphonist

Let's move on to one of the better-known Latvian composers, Jānis Ivanovs (1906-1983). Ivanovs, pictured above, is regarded as the country's finest symphonist, of which he wrote 21. Like Lūcija Garūta, Ivanovs was a composer content to pursue a late-Romantic path, often drawing in nationalist fashion on the folk melodies of his homeland and able (by a happy coincidence) to continue writing in this vein after the Soviets imposed their rule on Latvia (due to this being the favoured style of the Soviet Union too). 

As it's short, let's start our exploration of the music of Ivanovs with his First Symphony of 1933. It's subtitle, Poema sinfonia, is a correct one; the having the feel of a symphonic poem rather than a symphony. It has a heroic, filmic sweep and offers the listener decent tunes (especially the rather Khachaturian-like one beginning at 3:19) plus pleasing orchestral colours. It isn't a great piece but it's a likeable one nonetheless, and has moments that sound surprisingly like Britain's very own Arnold Bax. (He will  do that elsewhere in his symphonic cycle too). The first movement of the half-hour-long three-movement Second Symphony of 1937, modelled on the famous Symphony of César Franck, begins with brooding but rouses itself and ends optimistically. Along the way the music works out its themes in the way of many minor late-Romantic symphonies, pleasingly if rather forgettably. The Andante, however, has an attractive melody and, through the composer's striking ear for orchestral colour, successfully conjures up an atmosphere that cannot but remind me of Scotland's mountains and mists. The slightly Scottish-sounding main theme helps create that coincidence. It's a winning movement. The final movement wraps things up heroically, as you would expect. The traditional four movements are found in the Third Symphony of 1938. Again, the opening movement opens broodingly and this brooding dominates despite the somewhat jaunty nature of the main theme. The best thing in this movement is the waltz-like second subject that will instantly hit fans of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances as being similar to his dance macabre there. The Andante second movement has another of those melodies that is likely to immediately win over the listener - a big tune in the Tchaikovsky/Khachaturian vein. The pleasures of a good tune, surrounded by imaginative scoring, cannot be underestimated. There's a definite folktune quality to the melody, which (if it is typical of Latvian folk melodies) has - like the equivalent tune in the Second Symphony something of Scottish folk melody about it. That sets it apart from Tchaikovsky and Khachaturian. Another fine Ivanovs slow movement. An amiably grotesque Firebird-like scherzo, with Tchaikovskyan asides, follows, then a finale that seems to have Tchaikovsky at the forefront of its mind. Like its predecessors, the Third Symphony has many minutes of music I'm very glad to have heard, though its the two slow movements from Nos. 2 and 3 to which I will be returning. 

With the Fourth Symphony, "Atlantis" of 1941 (second half here), Ivanovs attempts to work on a large-scale canvas. His Scriabin-like ambitions for a multi-media performance (as we'd call it these days) is echoed in the Scriabin-like character of the piece. (I'm thinking of the Scriabin symphonies). The closest sound-alike though might be Arnold Bax again. (How odd is that?) This big symphonic statement aims to evoke the myth of Atlantis and to my mind has as more of the symphonic poem than the symphony about it. That said, the first movement, Ira Dei Legenda (The Message of Plato), creates an ominous atmosphere, building expectation. Listen out for the warning bell. (You wan't miss it). The slow movement, Poseidon - Papylon, evokes the god of the sea and the capital city of Atlantis. There's some rather impressionistic writing here and a wordless female chorus adds to the Debussyan element. Ivanovs remains on form throughout this endearing movement. Next comes a fine wind and brass-dominated scherzo depicting the Aedes Sacra - religious ceremonies - of Atlantis. They ain't Anglican services, that's for sure! Finally, "On a dreadful day, On a dreadful night, The Island of Atlantis disappeared, drowned in the sea." This closing movement is intended to be the climactic movement of the whole symphony, overwhelming the listener with the horror of it all and leaving him benumbed afterwards. Well, it doesn't do that but it's a listenable movement nonetheless, despite its length. 

The first post-Second World War symphony, the Fifth Symphony (second half here), saw a change in style. Though on the same large scale as its predecessor, the serious Fifth shows a less opulently late-Romantic, more Shostakovich-like side to the composer. The first movement is a conflict movement, pitting the dissonance of war against the serene melodiousness of peace. The spirit of  peace dominates the thoughtful and masterful Andante, albeit viewed through still-sad eyes - a movement with (for a Brit) some interesting echoes of Vaughan Williams -, though admirers of Shostakovich and Prokofiev will surely recognise the influence of their men in the burlesque that barges into it so rudely. All three of those same composers flitted across my ear in the excellent scherzo-like third movement, a section full of dance energy with some glorious trumpet writing and a strange, veiled waltz episode which blossoms into lyricism.  As a piece of symphonic writing, the Fifth is the composer's finest symphony so far, rooting the listener's attention throughout its first three movements. Only the episodic finale doesn't consistently hit the heights, despite struggling to do so. It's one of those dramatic movements which fights its way towards a happy ending. In spite of that slight caveat, Ivanovs's Fifth is, to my ears, one of the towering pieces of Latvian music. I think you will be impressed by it.

As you will with the Sixth Symphony (subtitled Latvian) of 1949. This is shorter and more accessible that the Fifth but no less masterful. I actually prefer it; indeed, it's  the Jānis Ivanovs work I love the most. I say that realising that it is in some ways the result of a stifling of the composer's spirit by the Soviet authorities. The infamous 1948 decree decrying 'formalism' in music included Ivanovs's Fourth and Fifth symphonies in its condemnation and this more conventional-sounding symphony was written in its wake. Still, anyone who savours the Vaughan Williams and Prokofiev symphonies should take to it with relish too and, despite having dragged you through five earlier symphonies already, the Sixth Symphony is the place I'd advise newcomers to begin their Ivanovs symphonic cycle. It integrates elements found in the earlier symphony into a fully coherent and satisfying whole and it should be in the repertoire of major orchestras around the world, selling its composer's name. The first movement is superb. Its lyrical second subject (with its surrounding Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances-style writing) and the beautiful coda will linger in your memory. The scherzo is a high-spirited one with a lovely, delicately-scored folksong-like trio that is sure to charm you. After this delightful movement comes an irresistible Andante whose relaxed, radiant beauty speaks with a voice that will especially appeal to lovers of British music from the first half of the last century. It is warm, gorgeously melodic and delightfully orchestrated. The finale has a slow introduction that draws on earlier elements and generates an air of somewhat anxious expectancy, but the main allegro section banishes this with its optimistic folk-inspired energy. It's main tune will soon have your blood flowing and your foot tapping. Yes, the fanfares and the uplifting, Soviet-style ending are a bit less elevated but it's still a splendid movement to end a splendid symphony.

Let's leap forward to 1971, passing over seven more symphonies, the composer's rehabilitation and his rise to the position of President of the Latvian Composers' Union to arrive at three of the later symphonies.

The Fourteenth Symphony and its successor suggest a darkening of the composer's art, but no decline in its quality. The Fourteenth is rather like the Ivanovs of the once-denounced Fifth Symphony, except that it's a chamber symphony for strings only and strikes a more withdrawn and dissonant note throughout. The first movement proceeds by the serious play of lyrical and dramatic elements. The darkly beautiful slow movement is elegiac and full of pained dissonances. The dramatic finale has elements that evoke comparison with the Shostakovich of the string quartets. It is a first-rate piece, full of characteristic invention. Light relief it most certainly isn't though. Nor is the Fifteenth Symphony of 1972. Here the rest of the orchestra rejoins the strings for one of the composer's most expansive symphonic canvases. It bears the sub-title Sinfonia Ipsa. I have no idea why. Ipsa are sea-snails, as far as I know. Wouldn't it be good for there to be a symphony written about sea-snails? Maybe this is it! There is certainly something sea-like about the turbulent lyricism of the first movement. The slow movement is mysterious, its pang-like dissonances and the use of piled-up octaves to build a mighty climax giving it a deep, brooding quality. The finale keeps to the overall mood of the symphony and swirls, crashes and broods menacingly.

Ending this dip into the Ivanovs symphonic canon (the last of his completed symphonies No.21 was completed by other hands) comes the Twentieth Symphony of 1981. It shares the dark qualities of Nos.14 and 15, amplifying them to the status of tragedy. Something similar seems to have been going on in Ivanov's late music to that which was also happening in Shostakovich's late music - a strain of pessimism filling the music. It undoubtedly gives it a very personal feeling, as if the composer is allowing us a glimpse at his innermost feelings. Dramatic outburst punctuate the morose introspection of the first movement and the Adagio is even gloomier, like the music of someone lost in memory and sadness. The short third movement is marked Minuet: Reminiscenza and is wistful in character, music of sad smiles. The composer must have thought that it fitted in with the rest of the symphony, though I'm not so sure. The finale is a final big statement, not overly long but full of imposing ideas.

These black-bound late symphonies don't give the immediate pleasures of the three early symphonies, or the involving ambition of the Fourth and Fifth, or the happy nobility of the Sixth, but they are rewarding pieces nonetheless, worth spending time with - if you're not already feeling too depressed!

After that you may well be thirsting for a little more of the less despondent music of Jānis Ivanovs. The 1938 Cello Concerto is a fairly short and lyrically-charged piece, wholly late-Romantic and rhapsodic in manner. His tuneful 1951 Violin Concerto is in the same style and very much in the tradition of Russian (and Finnish) virtuoso violin concertos from the days before Shostakovich and Prokofiev (and Ivanovs). The Violin Concerto's slow movement is an especial delight, with a lovely melody and some rustic dance episodes of considerable charm. If you like Tchaikovsky's or Glazunov's violin concertos  (or Korngold's for that matter) then these two Ivanovs concertos should be very much to your taste. You can tell that the post-Stalin 'thaw' is well under way, however, by the time you come to the opening notes of the 1959 Piano Concerto. Listening to them immediately after the Violin Concerto provoked a wince. Ah yes, dissonance! Ouch!! This Piano Concerto lowers the level of lyricism found in the earlier concertos, having more of a Prokofiev-style bite to it - though, like Prokofiev, it cannot forbear lyricism completely.

It's time to move on, but not before one of these:

Further Ivanovs listening:

Piano Sonata, 1931
Pictures from Lataglian Landscapes, Suite No.1, 1935
Rainbow, 1939
Festive Prelude, 1940
Sonata brevis, 1962
Andante replicato, 1963
Three Sketches, 1966

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