When I reviewed Reinis Zarins’ first recording for
Champs Hill I was impressed with his clever choice of repertoire to
fit his theme of Circus
. On this, his second recording for them he has chosen
to throw a spotlight on Jazeps Vitols whose 150th
year falls in 2013. On the strength of this disc Vitols, one of Zarins’
compatriots, certainly deserves that spotlight. Both the pianist and
Champs Hill deserve praise for their part in this project. Whilst people
could indulge themselves in using Hungarian comic writer George Mikes’
way of assessing Vitols as either a second or third rate composer (or
variations in between as in first rate second rate or second rate third
rate) I prefer to say simply that he was a good composer. Some of these
short piano works are very good indeed. There is a feeling of disarming
innocence about these pieces as well as gentle humour and a delicate
beauty. I was captivated throughout this well filled disc.
Vitols studied under Rimsky-Korsakov at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, leaving with the Gold Medal. He then went on to teach there for thirty years where his students included Prokofiev and Miaskovsky. He then became Rector of the Latvian Conservatoire (now the Music Academy) which he founded in 1919. This followed Latvia’s establishment as an independent republic in 1918. It has born Vitols’ name since 1958. During the inter-war years his educational work earned him the highest decorations as well as the status as honorary fellow of the music academies of Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Finland and Sweden.
In style his music is characterised by national traits. Indeed he is considered as the father of Latvian classical music. As such he was a prolific collector of folksongs making over 300 arrangements of them. Folksongs understandably permeate his piano works which are as charming in their own way as any written by Bartók or Medtner.
The first work on the disc is Vitols’ 1900 composition Ten Latvian Folksongs: Miniature Paraphrases for Piano
. These consist of delightful little pieces that while simple are extremely effective. These miniatures, inspired by tunes well known by all Latvians, were highly thought of and it was his friend Anatoly Liadov who suggested he orchestrate seven of them for symphony orchestra (op.29a of 1904).
There then follows an extended examination of an extremely popular folksong: Variations on a Latvian Folksong
. This is a brilliantly expressive work that treats the main subject in many different moods over its nine variations. It’s monumental in scope despite its relatively short length of 18 minutes. This work firmly established his reputation as a composer of piano music and it was awarded the Glinka prize.
The next pieces which are a selection from his Eight Miniatures for Piano
which were written almost forty years after the variations. The programme notes say that, by this time, Vitols had left “the influence of Chopin or early Skryabin ... far behind”. While that is true in the sense that he is definitely his own man shades of both remain. There are clearer Chopin influences at work in his 1897 composition Waltz-capriccio
but influences only. It may remind you of Chopin (or John Field come to that) rather than anyone else but the music is otherwise 100% Vitols.
The Prelude in B major
is from 1893 and again shows a maturity that gives the music a unique voice. The Sonatine
from 1926 is in three movements lasting a total of almost 14 minutes. It is a wonderfully expressive work full of delicious melodies. In the last movement I caught a whiff of Stravinsky. By the Sea
from 1913 is a very evocative piece inspired as a result of watching lightning far away across the Black Sea, too far away to hear, just leaving the flashes to play in the darkness. The Baltic Sea was where Song of the Waves
was created in 1909. It is firmly of the second period of Vitols’ piano music in which programme is more important. This wonderfully descriptive piece, in which the sea progresses from calm to agitated, is as the notes point out, quite Lisztian. The final work on the disc is from 1913. It is a very beautiful little love song in the form of a lullaby with a lovely melody that is quite irresistible.
For me the entire disc is irresistible and Reinis Zarins has again been skilful clever in the pieces he has selected. It is good to know that Zarins’ has put his artistry into championing and bringing Vitols to a wider audience both in Latvia and abroad. Since there is little of Vitols’ music otherwise available this disc should certainly help. Zarins’ skilful playing brings out the best in the music. There is much more to go at. I hope that this gifted pianist will bring us more of it and if he does I shall be first in the queue to review it. Anyone who loves piano music and the discovery of new composers will thoroughly enjoy this disc as I did.