Wednesday, 13 February 2013

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!


  1. I suggest, listen to Esenvalds' Frontiers of Time, The Last Letters, Legend of the Walled-in Woman, or Sunset: St. Louis, and you'll get another, a much wider picture of Esenvalds' world.

    1. I've just listened to 'Legend of the Walled-in Woman' now. It's a wonderful piece. The shadowy effects he creates around the keening melodies are remarkable. They aren't simple at all. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Ligeti's 'Lux Aeterna', which makes him more in tune with the modernist spirit than I suspected. I'll try and seek out the other pieces you recommend, and others.

      Thanks for the tips.