A fresh glimpse of folk songs a la Dārziņš

“In order to become universal, one must first become national…To study, to immerse oneself in the spirit of one’s own people until you feel a part of the whole—that is my goal.” So spoke Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who redefined how the elements and character of a folk tradition could be internalized to inspire music universal in expression.

Volfgangs Dārziņš (1906-1962), son of beloved Latvian Romantic composer Emīls Dārziņš, shared that belief. His volume of 200 Latvian folk song arrangements stands as a testament to his conviction. Written as a vocal line with accompaniment, they can be performed either by solo voice with piano accompaniment or as piano solos. However, the brevity of these settings (generally a single stanza, often only a few measures) requires some imagination for a satisfactory presentation in performance.

On Volfgangs Dārziņš: 100 latviešu tautasdziesmas Latvian composer and pianist Imants Zemzaris has selected 100 of these arrangements. He has arrived at a very satisfying solution by grouping them into sets by subject to highlight their similarities and differences in a way that presents them as little suites—lullabies, burial songs, sun songs, everyday life, etc. In the past, many singers and pianists have performed and recorded them in strophic fashion, simply repeating each setting depending on the number of verses in the text, with variation achieved through dynamics, tempo and nuance.

So what are they like? Brief, even fleeting bits of mood, established through very personal, highly varied settings. Dārziņš did not elaborate or develop these melodies, nor did he set individual verses to reflect the textual character of each verse. He did make more than one arrangement of some tunes, but these are alternative views of the music, rather than unified variations. In all, they are his personal reaction to the character of each melody, the message of the text. Aphoristic as they may be, Dārziņš packs a world of emotion and power into each few seconds through allusion and suggestion, often in dense, highly chromatic visions. His view of each tune brings out unique colors and often unsuspected characteristics in these mini-suites, much like gazing at facets of a gem from different angles.

It’s often difficult to point to a specifically Latvian character here. Bartok, the Spaniard Federico Mompou, and the “Russian” period of Igor Stravinsky come to mind at times, with the postimpressionism of Maurice Ravel often close by. Some even hear the influence of Carl Orff. If you’re expecting the tonal beauty and tame dissonances of Jāzeps Vītols (who also set 200 Latvian folk songs in a similar format) or Emīlis Melngailis, this music will surprise you at times. But repeated listenings reinforce the feeling that Dārziņš’ more modern, laconic and individual approach is just as valid and rewarding. If not for his status as an exiled “nonperson” during Latvia’s Soviet occupation and premature death at the age of 56 he would certainly be more widely known on the world music scene.

Imants Zemzaris obviously loves and admires these miniatures and his fine technique allows him to effortlessly toss off technically demanding passages with a well-judged palette of tonal color, variety and fantasy. Compared to a private archival tape of the composer playing some of these same arrangements, Zemzaris’ approach is remarkably similar, but more technically assured and vastly better sonically. However, this recording is very close and emphasizes the brightness of the piano. A more mellow instrument might have taken the edge off the clanginess of some very percussive sections. But this is a personal preference and is in no way meant as a criticism of Zemzaris’ playing or musicianship.

An important release, providing a fresh glimpse into the music of a modern Latvian master. Now, how about Dārziņš’ other solo piano music, and the two piano concertos?


Volfgangs Dārziņš: 100 latviešu tautasdziesmas

Volfgangs Dārziņš

BaltAsia Foundation,  2000

Notes: Performed by Imants Zemzaris.

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