Album explores treasures of Latvian classical music

The world of Latvian classical music contains many treasures that are unfortunately known only to Latvians. Hoping to rectify this situation, in 2000 UPE Recording Co. released the album Latvian Millennium Classics. This was a collection of some of the best-known works in Latvian classical music, designed as an introduction to those—like me—less schooled in the genre. Realizing that just one collection could not possibly be enough, UPE released another, Latviešu klasikas dārgumi, in 2001.

This release again collects a number of well-known works by Latvian composers onto one compact disc. The major difference this time is that all the works on the record are performed by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Imants Resnis. Latvian Millennium Classics had many different performance types (orchestral, solo instruments, choir), while all the tracks on this CD are orchestral.

Though there is quite a good deal of overlap between the two discs, having all the pieces performed by the same orchestra adds a flow and continuity to Latviešu klasikas dārgumi that was not present on the earlier record. The LSO is held in high regard in not just Latvia, but the rest of the world as well. This CD is a testament to that fact. The orchestra is able to bring out the best in just about any piece it plays, and is especially capable of doing tremendous justice to the works of Latvian composers.

The album starts off with two pieces by Andrejs Jurjāns, “Ačikops” and “Barkarola.” “Ačikops” is from the “Latvian Dances Suite” and is a tribute to Latvian folk dances in style and melody. One can almost imagine the folk dancers dancing around in circles and clapping along when listening to this piece. Just as on Latvian Millenium Classics, “Barkarola” features the beautiful french horn of Arvīds Klišāns.

No symphonic anthology would be complete without one of the most famous pieces of Latvian classical music, “Melanholiskais valsis” by Emīls Dārziņš. The melody is at once simple, beautiful and memorable.

Jānis Mediņš also gets two pieces on the album, “Ārija” and “Ziedu valsis” from the ballet “Mīlas uzvara,” an excellent sample from this prolific composer’s output. Mediņš had one of the richest portfolios of compositions, and these two pieces show why the Latvian people held him in such high regard.

The somber piece “Rudens” by Alfrēds Kalniņš is another highlight. The composition was completed in 1941, and, intentional or not, its dark melody foreshadowed the difficult times ahead for the Latvian people.

With Latvian Millenium Classics, I lamented the fact that two of my favorite Latvian composers, Jānis Ivanovs and Imants Kalniņš, were not included. I was very pleased to find that both composers were represented on this release. Their absence on the earlier release is more than made up for here, as the beauty of Ivanovs’ compositions are displayed in two pieces: in the second movement of his “Cello Concerto” and in fragments of the music from the film Salna pavasarī. The “Cello Concerto” features Agnese Rugēvica on cello. She is able to bring out the sublime beauty of the piece. Ivanovs’ “Cello Concerto” is one of my favorite pieces of Latvian classical music, and this performance of it only reinforces my belief.

Imants Kalniņš is represented by the second movement of his “4th Symphony,” one of the most popular symphonies written by a Latvian composer. Its unique blend of all kinds of styles has ensured this symphony a permanent place in the annals of Latvian music. Even though this symphony was written 30 years ago, it still sounds fresh, thanks to the skill of the Liepāja orchestra. It alternates between the playful and the aggressive, and the merging of these two styles is what makes this piece so dear to so many listeners.

Jānis Mediņš’ brother Jēkabs also gets a track here with his work “Leģenda.” This is another dark and sad piece, and it sounds almost mystical to me, as if it was trying to recall many an ancient Latvian folk legend with its music.

World-reknowned Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ talent is displayed by the inclusion of the “Cantabile for String Orchestra.” As the liner notes indicate, Vasks’ focus is more on human emotion, rather than on events or the current time. The liner notes also say that the “Cantabile” has to do with the expression of joy, but it sounds rather bleak to me! That is no matter, as Vasks is at his best when he is documenting deep sadness and pain, which few other composers can do as well.

Finishing off the album is one section of the longer suite “Kāzu dziesma” by Romualds Kalsons. Kalsons, along with Vasks and Imants Kalniņš, make up what are called the “new voices” of Latvian classical music, each with their own unique style and interpretation. Kalsons’ piece is one of celebration, and it is a fitting end to this celebration of Latvian classical music.

I particularly wanted to commend UPE for the liner notes (in Latvian and English) that accompany this album. They provide much more in-depth documentation about each of the composers and their works, as well as the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra. This is far better than the rather anemic notes provided with the Latvian Millennium Classics release.

Through almost 70 minutes of music, the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra traces the growth and evolution of Latvian classical music, through some of the best-known composers and their best-known works. This is a task of rather epic proportions, because there have been so many styles through the last 100-plus years of music in Latvia, and it is a difficult job for one orchestra to do it all justice. However, the LSO is well up to the task and the results are admirable. Latviešu klasikas dārgumi pays homage to all the great music that has already come, and leaves the listener in eager anticipation of what the next century of Latvian music might bring.


Latviešu klasikas dārgumi

Liepājas simfoniskais orķestris

UPE Recording Co.,  2001


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *