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Liepāja Concerti - Volume I
Rihards DUBRA (b 1964)
Liepāja Concerto No 3 for piano and orchestra (2012) [32:40]
Vilnis ŠMĪDBERGS (b 1944)
Liepāja Concerto No 8 for violin and orchestra (2014) [30:26]
Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b 1977)
Liepāja Concerto No 4 ‘ Visions of Arctic Night’ for clarinet and orchestra (2012) [24:01]
Juris KARLSONS (b 1948)
Liepāja Concerto No 9 ‘Gliese 581’ (2014) [18:19]
Kārlis LĀCIS (b 1977)
Liepāja Concerto No 10 ’42.195’ for Flute, Oboe and Orchestra (2013) [33:07]
Endijs Renemanis, piano; Ilze Zariņa, violin; Ints Dālderis, clarinet; Miks Vilsons, flute; Pēteris Endzelis, oboe
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/ Atvars Lakstīgala
rec 2013-16, Liepāja Latvian Society Hall (3, 4 & 8); Great Amber Concert Hall (9 & 10), Liepāja, Latvia.
ODRADEK RECORDS ODRCD362 [63:06 + 75:27]

Liepāja is a port city which lies in the far south-west of Latvia, roughly 125 miles from the capital Riga. It is known as the ‘City where the Wind was Born’ and is regarded as the home of Latvian rock music, which emerged as a force there long before the end of Soviet jurisdiction. It is also the home of the oldest continuously performing orchestra outside Riga, the Liepāja Symphony (it dates from 1881, when it was known as the Baltic Philharmonic). Its home is the spanking new concert hall known as the ‘Great Amber’ (see it here – it looks amazing!). Lest the reader thinks I am indulging in some sort of meaningless geo-historical digression, all of this information has some relevance to the Odradek set under consideration here. The five large scale works on these two discs are drawn from a set of twelve works (at the time of writing) commissioned from Latvian composers; the intention being to commission a ‘Brandenburg’ type series of concertante works which might promote the city of Liepāja as well as projecting the artistic spirit of this small nation. It is an ambitious idea but not a surprising one. Music lies at the absolute core of Latvian society. Choral music is central. While many readers will be aware of the music of Pēteris Vasks, these discs provide the opportunity to sample five other living Latvian composers, only one of whom (Ešenvalds) has thus far had any extensive exposure on disc.

We begin with Rihards Dubra and his half-hour piano concerto. Dubra’s choral music has previously featured on an outstanding Hyperion disc (review) but this is my first experience of his instrumental work. According to Dubra (as quoted in the booklet note), Latvia represents “…a quiet song, sung by my grandmother; the smell of warm rye bread, just out of the oven; longing that overwhelms you abroad; a herd of cranes in a green field…” The modal nature of some of the music on the Hyperion disc gives a clue to the harmonic content here, but nothing can really prepare one for what is a rather fractured, rhapsodic structure. It begins with a disarmingly innocent piano melody flecked by delicate washes of harp and bell-trees. This is mildly cinematic music conjuring, in my head at least, hazy rural vistas. I would say there are melodic commonalities with the symphonies of Vasks, but whether that adds up to an identifiable Latvian sound is as yet open to question. I have to say I’m a sucker for this kind of beautifully orchestrated, rather grandiose music. Some of Dubra’s melodic ideas are delightful. After about 10 minutes there’s a fascinating gamelan type passage for a multitude of tuned percussion which leads into unexpectedly motoric content. But this brief phase suddenly erupts into an explosion of unremitting, gloriously harmonised melody. Halfway through the work, the simple piano material that opened it returns and presages what amounts to a more knowingly neo-romantic central section. I’d be lying to say this is either sophisticated or ingenious, but I did find it very beautiful. At the 22- minute mark, bells toll and launch the final section which quickly builds to a restatement of the captivating melody heard earlier on, with yet more ornate orchestral accompaniment. This precedes a weird cadenza for the soloist, which refers once more to the ‘big tune’ before turning all boogie-woogie and morphing into what appears to be a 12-bar blues (a reference to Liepāja’s rock’n’roll credentials, perhaps?). Then marimba and brass launch the coda which concludes the work (via a false ending) in appropriately jubilant and uplifting style. I suspect Dubra’s concerto is a classic Marmite piece which will utterly polarise the MWI readership. I absolutely loved it. The soloist, Endijs Renemanis plays with palpable enthusiasm and maximum commitment, although the recording is very in-your-face – at odd moments I found the orchestra rather drowned out the soloist.

Next up is a violin concerto by Vilnis Šmīdbergs, the oldest composer represented here. Šmīdbergs was the doyen of the Latvian art-rock scene in the 1970s (despite being conservatory trained) and has since returned to more obviously ‘classical’ idioms. As if to emphasise the impact of the local landscape on so many of these composers, he asks in the note: “Where else can you find so many kinds of beauty close by; seaside with sand dunes, lakes and marshlands, wide plains and forests?” However in contrast to this he implies that any nature-mysticism in this piece is moderated by a more sardonic streak. It begins rather enigmatically and mysteriously, reeds and high strings punctuated by woodblock and tuned percussion before the soloist enters with a rather tentative, strained melody. Its sound world projects (perhaps subconsciously) reminiscences of the opening of Prokofiev’s youthful first violin concerto which I always thought was way ahead of its time. The dramatic opening eventually gives way to fascinating, dance-like content. Again Šmīdbergs shows all the characteristics of a superb orchestrator – some of the inner workings and textures (especially in the brass) seem most unusual. The violin part is elegant and songful. The soloist, Ilze Zariņa gleefully embraces her gratefully written part, although the sound here and there can be rather reverberant; tuttis especially sound rather cluttered. The central movement is marked andante and opens with light, ethereal material. On the face of it this seems more like nature music with twinkling percussion and bird-song-like winds. It creates a curious atmosphere which lures the listener ever more deeply into its sound world as it proceeds. The finale is a more obviously dance-infused Presto. This is inflected with a kind of sinuous, exotic energy. Again the reverberance of the recording (brass at times evoking those echoey old Melodiya discs!) is a bit disconcerting but Šmīdbergs’ music is sufficiently engrossing to overcome this. The coda is exhilarating – it is quite shameful that a composer capable of composing music of such quality is not better known outside the Baltic countries.

Ēriks Ešenvalds is much more of a known quantity due largely to regular releases of his choral music on Hyperion, Naxos and Ondine, among other labels. In fact this very performance of his clarinet concerto ‘Visions of Arctic Night’ has been previously issued by Odradek in a collection called Kurland Sounds (together with works by Šmīdbergs and Vasks – ODRCD319 - review). One assumes it is included here for the convenience of collectors seeking the complete set of these Liepāja Concerti – presumably more volumes are planned. Either way the subtitle of Ešenvalds’ piece implies that the Nordic night sky is the natural phenomenon playing upon the composer’s inspiration in this instance. It begins with an almost jaunty, folk-like tune for the clarinet with lively orchestral accompaniment. Again there are novel effects in brass and percussion. The statements of the main element of the theme are subjected to mysterious echoes. In fact this device evokes limitless space, a sense reinforced by the extraordinary atmospherics that follow. Ešenvalds here fashions a quite magical evocation of sky, one quite unencumbered by cliché, and while the listener attempts to make some sense of these sounds, a big orchestral climax leads to curious electronic effects which act as a bridge to the beautiful theme of the slow movement. The brilliant clarinettist Ints Dālderis projects strange whisperings and flutterings which are accompanied by a gentle piano commentary and an omnipresent electronic halo – magical episodes like this act to remind this listener why one bothers to listen to new music in the first place. One imagines lying flat on one’s back in an Orkney field devoid of natural light, after the solstice, staring at the heavens. The shimmering yet pellucid writing for both soloist and orchestra is perfectly natural and completely miraculous. This Espressivo - misterioso slow movement is a stunning achievement by any standards. It’s also difficult to follow. The finale is marked Maestoso-Grave-Limpido; its truly majestic opening soon gives way to gently pulsing, veiled textures, again seemingly underpinned by a synthetic sounding haze. Roughly halfway through the jaunty material from the opening re-emerges and triggers the pulling together of threads from the rest of the work, but not before a final contemplation of the celestial vistas. Ints Dālderis’ performance is thrilling throughout and more than matched by the heartfelt response of the Liepāja orchestra and its fastidious conductor Atvars Lakstīgala. I have been repeatedly touched by the sonic imagination of this composer, which is apparent in so much of his choral output. However, with ‘Visions of Arctic Nights’ I suspect Ešenvalds has reached another level. It is a magnificent achievement and more than worth the price of this set in its own right.

To my shame I am completely unfamiliar with the two remaining composers here. The impulse behind Juris Karlsons’ Liepāja Concerto No 9 was news coverage of the astronomical discovery of ‘Gliese 581’, a red-dwarf planet purported to harbour conditions possibly conducive to life. In Karlsons’ own words, this concerto for orchestra addresses “the necessity of searching, erring, finding and longing”. There is a powerful environmental subtext here that implores us to care better for the planet we inhabit. Gliese 581 begins in rather filmic, Star Trek like terrain before a lonely clarinet emerges from sustained high winds, strings and percussion. It is apparent that Karlsons has written a fair amount of film and TV music, and this music depends greatly on texture and atmosphere. It’s colourfully put together, a real showpiece for the orchestra. Yet while Karlsons has a very personal way with rhythm, I ultimately found his thematic and harmonic material rather anonymous, although the work incorporates a touching (and convincingly integrated) reference to Parsifal towards its conclusion. I suspect the three works in the set that precede it are so consistently arresting that I may well have found more in ‘Gliese 581’ had I heard it first up. Incidentally this work was recorded in the new concert hall, and it shows: in sonic terms at least it is spectacular.

The subtitle of Kārlis Lācis’ double concerto for flute and oboe is yet more impenetrable. Marathon-running obsessives will be the only ones likely to recognise that the number 42.195 represents the length of that race in kilometres. The notes reveal that Lācis is a keen marathon runner and that this activity has inspired the piece. Its fast-moving episodes suggest the idea of passing objects on a designated route – the two soloists are encouraged to keep pace with each other and run in step rather than to race. It’s a technically accomplished work which seems almost unrelentingly cheerful. It seemingly encompasses a huge range of stylistic influences including Hollywood, French ballet, Martinu, Old Vienna, Minimalism, Easy Listening, Milhaud, Messiaen and Broadway. Lācis weaves these sources and more together with extraordinary confidence. The opening reminded me of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus in a ‘call and response’ kind of way. Much of the piece is very balletic – I suspect an imaginative choreographer would be able to make a most agreeable Jeux type entertainment from this! The soloists maintain the interest – one pre-requisite of the piece on their part must be stamina, and lots of it as 42,195 is well over half an hour long. There is a slower episode at its core, providing each soloist with their own moments in the spotlight (as well as a carton of orange juice and a wet sponge). There is some particularly winsome material for the flautist Miks Vilsons to negotiate, but to be fair both soloists achieve what I assume are personal bests. At no stage does Lācis’ music plumb any great depths, but It is delightfully put together and superbly played and recorded – again in the new hall. While I certainly enjoyed it some listeners may consider it overlong.

A word about the band. These readings were obviously given at different events, in various locations over a five year period. There is nothing remotely provincial about the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra. These five pieces are incredibly varied and present unique challenges, yet all are carried off triumphantly. As for the conductor Atvars Lakstīgala, he keeps a tight rein on these players and gives these fascinating new concerti the best possible advocacy. There is palpable belief and excitement throughout both discs. Šmīdbergs’ concerto is especially fine. But the Ešenvalds is unquestionably a masterpiece.

Richard Hanlon
 





 

 




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