Recent release restores Jānis Ivanovs’ symphonies in prominent place

Latvian composer Jānis Ivanovs (1906 – 1983) has been called Latvia’s ‘greatest symphonist’, which is understandable, considering that he composed twenty-one symphonies during his lifetime – one of the most significant contributions to Latvian symphonic music by any composer. However, many of his symphonies have receded from view, and are rarely heard internationally.

The Latvian national record label Skani has been actively encouraging Latvian ensembles to record the music of Ivanovs not just to raise the composer’s profile, but also to bring his music to listeners worldwide. In 2021, the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and composer Guntis Kuzma released two of Ivanovs’ later symphonies – nos. 15 and 16.

Symphony no. 15 (or Symphonia ipsa), composed in 1972, is, like many of the composer’s works, full of tension and conflict. Ivanovs, like many other Latvian composers, suffered under the Soviet system, particularly when trying to balance his own inner artistic visions with the demands of the State.

The first movement is hesitant, almost uncertain, with brief melodies appearing in the strings and wind instruments, which are then taken over by dramatic lines in the strings and harsh sounds from the brass instruments. The movement alternates between moments of tranquility and moments of tension and concludes on a somber note. The second movement ramps up the tension and is highly energetic and always in motion, and the third begins peacefully, but always with a sense of foreboding as it slowly builds to a dramatic, thunderous climax. The LNSO and conductor Kuzma imbue the with both the necessary tension and dramatic effect and maintain this all the way to the conclusion of the fourth movement, which returns to the hesitancy of the first movement as it slowly fades away.

Symphony no. 16, composed in 1974, continues the themes of the 15th Symphony. This is the era of Brezhnev and the time of ‘stagnation’, and Ivanovs’ frustrations continue to manifest themselves in his music. Creeping foreboding permeates the first movement, as grave, somber chords give way to a more frantic, tense crescendo, which then segues into the galloping second movement, a whirlwind of motion filled with uncertainty which concludes with an unexpected drumroll. The third movement is again somber, even morose, but still rich with dramatic tension, and the LNSO reveal the many layers of Ivanovs’ musical language. The symphony concludes with the somewhat calmer fourth movement, ending on a grandiose, stately chord.

The CD booklet, with notes by musicologist Armands Znotiņš (including English translation), provides additional insight into the compositions and the composer, and offers fascinating historical anecdotes, for example after the failure of Ivanovs’ Symphony no. 9 and the criticism of it by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Ivanovs ceased all communication with him. 

Often bleak and full of angst, Ivanovs’ symphonies can be difficult to listen to, as they seem entirely devoid of any kind of hope or happiness. However, that is what makes the symphonies such compelling listening, as they do seem to offer windows into Ivanovs’ thoughts and soul, his struggle with the oppressive Soviet system. The LNSO and conductor Guntis Kuzma bring forth the dramaticism and deep tension in these works, providing for an immersive and enlightening listen. Ivanovs’ Symphonies nos. 15 and 16 have undeservedly faded into the background, and this release should go a long way to restoring them to a more prominent place in the sphere of Latvian symphonic music.

For further information, please visit the Skani website and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra website

Ivanovs. Symphonies nos. 15 and 16

Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, conductor Guntis Kuzma

Skani, LMIC/SKANI 126, 2021

Track listing:

Symphony no. 15 Symphonia Ipsa in B-flat minor

  1. I Moderato
  2. II Molto Allegro
  3. III Molto Andante (Adagio)
  4. IV Moderato. Allegro

Symphony no. 16 in E-flat major

  • I Moderato. Allegro Moderato
  • II Allegro
  • Andante. Pesante
  • IV Allegro Moderato

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

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