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Imants KALNIŅŠ (b.1941) Complete Symphonies and Concertos
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/Atvars Lakstīgala, Māris Sirmais
rec. 2014-20, Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepaja, Latvia SKANI LMIC087 [5 CDs: 360 mins]
It must come as something of a shock that Imants Kalniņš, the Rock-meets-Classical enfant terrible of Latvian music, is 80 years old this year. Skani doesn’t draw attention to this in any noticeable way in this box set of his largely previously-released discs, though they do contrast the hairy-faced youngster – every inch looking like a grizzled if impish member of The Soft Machine – alongside his more contemplative older self.
Three of the seven symphonies with associated works have been reviewed before (review ~ review) and I am going to cast a relatively deft pen over what you can expect to find if you are new to the composer. His compositional omniverousness was allied to a politicised stance but he had a notably fine ear for direct influence. In his First Symphony (1964), for instance, the most explicit influence is Shostakovich – the winds are piercing, the syntax is frequently tersely sardonic and there is a truly martial sense of drama. The slow movement is drenched in colour and texture in music of ambiguous expressive meaning. But he is no mere epigone; the finale is controlled, architecturally sure and the music propulsive, with vibrant brass and percussion to the fore. The following year came the Second Symphony and signs of that ability to absorb, rapidly, and equally rapidly to project disconcerting strata of so-called musical hierarchies – the sinewy with the demotic, the high with the light. Thus, the opening jagged procession of mosaic-like material leads to a slow processional that then turns into strangely Light Music (the capitalization is here appropriate; it really does sound like this). In the central movement the curt is juxtaposed with the dreamlike, the lyricism emerging all the more expressionistic for this sense of destabilization. If one senses Mahlerian shadows in the finale there are also Rock-influenced ones too – and this was written some years before the Fourth Symphony that was really the ‘Rock’ Symphony. Influence and means pile up – he is not above some neo-classicism either.
In 1968 Kalniņš wrote Symphony No 3. His goal, increasingly, was communication. He had played keyboards in a Latvian Rock group and was always open to the more expansive possibilities of popular music in general. Whatever happened in the three years between Symphonies 2 and 3 the result was startling. The new work, cast in a single span composed of five sections, was the epitome of the light and balletic. In its communicative resourcefulness it seemed to look back to Prokofiev and in its quietly neo-classical elements Stravinsky was a model. There’s a post-Honegger symphonic chugging power. The last influence, if such it was, was both lively and astute given Honegger’s far-too overlooked set of symphonies. Thence, then, to the Fourth, which is what I think we should call his Rock Bolero symphony (the Bolero rhythm was to reappear several times as the cycle developed). This is performed with magnificent control by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra under Atvars Lakstīgala who directs the first five symphonies: Māris Sirmais takes over for the final two, the Oboe Concerto and Santa Cruz. This is his second longest symphony at 49 minutes – only No 6, at an hour’s length, exceeds it. The opening generates a propulsive rhythm, whilst the slow movement sets up a kind of Pizzicato Pavane, and has warm, filmic episodes, whilst also exuding a benignly phantasmagoric quality that admits the childlike. This shouldn’t be surprising. The music combines two elements at which he was excellently equipped; contemporary Rock and writing film scores. There are hints of minimalism in the vivid writing and the finale is overtly Pop-Rock, the music being songful and strident. This was largely imposed on the composer by the Soviet authorities who wouldn’t stand for actually sung poems by the American Kelly Cherry. So, the songs were transposed for the wind instruments and that’s the form in which the work is performed here. You will note the bass guitar and drums feeding the Rock machine throughout the symphony.
There was a six-year gap until Symphony No 5. The music’s terseness and quietly sombre nature reflect back on his first two works in the genre. He also makes much of a sequence – variations in effect – of scenes both withdrawn and dramatic. There’s a sense of a developing fugato – there is contrapuntalism in one’s ear when listening to much of his music – in the festive Scherzo-like third movement, whilst the finale employs a Latvian folk song, partly wrapped in Nordic shimmering strings and eloquent wind soloing. Grandeur, too, before the gently quiet ending. If the Fifth Symphony tacitly acknowledged that the Fourth had left dilemmas instead of solutions, then the fact that No 6 followed fully 22 years later is some kind of answer. His first symphony of the new millennium it triumphantly reintegrated his fondness for ostinato, for auburn-textured winds, and dappled sonorities. There are again Bolero hints though never in so defiant or so glorious a way as in No 4. Rather they are now part of the music’s inner fabric. The second and fourth movements employ a mixed choir. Kalniņš selected love poetry from three of Tagore’s collections, setting them in such a way that syncopation conveys a sense of off-beat rhythms; music of gentleness and refinement, with the most precise of instrumental touches that point to the music’s Indian origins. In the finale he sets a prayer to Christ. Cumulatively the music draws to itself an incremental sense of spiritual beauty and the close, very beautiful and rather remarkable in its freedom from conventional bombast, ends quietly, another feature of his symphonic music that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Symphony No 7 dates from 2015. Perhaps, in its frank reminiscences of film music from his youth, this may seem a rather touching envoi to the symphonic form. But that would be to reckon without those esoteric touches to show that something else is going on. There are March themes, some ‘Eastern’ sonorities that began to appear in his later symphonies, exciting motifs that generate Shostakovich-like drama, as well as Bolero underpinning of filmic warmth, something that is contrasted with slower, gauzy orchestration. Rather, then, than a fond farewell this is an altogether more active symphonic construction, one that binds elements of his musical writing for over 50 years and presents them as a lifetime’s work.
When some of these recordings were first issued some came with other orchestral music. The Fourth Symphony, for example, shares disc space with the contemporaneous music to the finale of the film Pūt, vējiņi – powerfully augmented by an electric guitar solo played by Māris Kupčs. The Cello Concerto is his earliest work here, dating from 1963 when he was in his very early 20s and in his third year of studies. It’s a bipartite work, melancholy and yearning, that doesn’t promote much contrast but ends in calming neo-classical gentleness. The Oboe Concerto is a different kind of piece that exploits the solo instrument for curlicues of folkloric richness as well as tuneful elegance in the finale. I have to part company with the notes (which are very good and in Latvian and English) which find the work juxtaposes ‘the skewed and destructive sides of life with pure beauty and unsullied harrmony’. I certainly get the latter – this is, to me, in effect, a pastoral idyll - but I don’t find the former; at least not in this work. It’s certainly a component of some of his other music. The Concerto for Orchestra (1966) seems to explore the virtuous triumvirate of Shostakovich, Honegger and Bartók as well as opportunities for percussion-tattered solos, ŕ la jazz. The ending is decidedly brusque. Santa Cruz is a gentle, brief theatre entr’acte.
This ends an absorbing symphonic life. It charts the career of a composer unwilling to accept the status quo and yet not prepared to break the formalities of symphonic conception. Kalniņš sought the best means by which to convey his musical message – of plurality without puerility, of openness without offering open season to every fad and fashion. He absorbed Rock and some of the freedoms of jazz, anthemic music and Indian love poetry; he rejoiced in lyricism and contrasted it with the bitter constraints of societal pressures as mediated musically via the corrosive and battering Marches that reappear time and again in his symphonies.
Dating of the recordings isn’t exact, the booklet merely noting the generic dates of recording as the period between 2014 and 2020. No praise is too high for the heroic orchestra and interpreters – primarily Lakstīgala because he shoulders most of the works but Sirmais too should be saluted for the ways in which he brings to life the Sixth and Seventh symphonies; no small achievement.
Perhaps it’s right that the colourful box – green, orange, blue, purple - should take us back to the primary-coloured sixties when this brave and resourceful composer set his face against conformity but also against the mechanical blandishments of the avant-garde, obscurantism and academic provincialism.
Jonathan Woolf Details
Symphony No 1 (1964) [38:21]
Symphony No 2 (1965) [34:54]
Symphony No 3 (1968) [16:38]
Symphony No 4 (1973) [49:57]
Symphony No 5 (1979) [44:50]
Symphony No 6 (2001) [60:03]
Symphony No 7 (2015) [37:01]
Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra (2012) [27:58]
Santa Cruz (2015) [5:32]
Concerto for Orchestra (1966) [18:31]
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1963) [19:55]
Soundtrack to the film Pūt, vējiņi, finale (1973) [6:33]
Māris Kupčs (electric guitar): Pūt, vējiņi
Aivars Meijers (bass guitar), Vilnis Krievins (drums): Symphony 4
Marta Sudraba (cello): Cello Concerto
Pēteris Endzelis (oboe): Oboe Concerto
State Choir ‘Lavija’: Symphony 6