Recent CD honors musical legacy of Latvian violinist Valdis Zariņš

Distinguished Latvian violinist Valdis Zariņš, who passed away in 2018, left behind a towering body of work. Over many decades of performance, Zariņš established himself as a peerless violinist, both as a soloist as well as his orchestral performances, most notably with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, where he performed for more than two decades.

While performing with the LNSO, Zariņš was often under the baton of renowned conductor Vassily Sinaisky, and the tandem gave hundreds of memorable concerts and made many significant recordings.

To honor Zariņš’ musical legacy, the Latvian national record label Skani released a two CD set of recordings featuring Zariņš with the LNSO conducted by Sinaisky in 2019. Simply entitled Valdis Zariņš, the collection contains four violin concertos, two by Latvian composers – Gundaris Pone (who is also the conductor for his concerto) and Romualds Kalsons, and two by international composers – Jean Sibelius and Béla Bartók.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ violin concerto, composed in 1904/05 and recorded by Zariņš and Sinaisky in 1988, is a personal and emotional work. Beginning in the opening of the first movement, Zariņš performs in an expressive, intimate manner, particularly in the extensive solo section in the middle of the movement, where Zariņš expresses varied moods in a captivating way. The slower, almost sentimental second movement is elevated by Zariņš’ mellifluous performance, while the dramatic, almost galloping third movement gives Zariņš the opportunity to display his technical skill, all the while supported by the precise performance by the LNSO.

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, composed in 1937/38, though full of Bartók’s Hungarian folk music influences, perhaps also reflects the current state of Europe at the time, with war all but inevitable. This may be represented with dramatic moments like the unexpected blast of sound in the first movement, almost like an alarm, and Valdis Zariņš and the LNSO fill these moments with a kind of terror and foreboding. The tranquil second movement offers a respite from the often tense first movement, though there are moments where the uneasiness returns. The third movement is more playful, and the interplay between the soloist and the orchestra is vividly displayed by Zariņš and the LNSO.

The Violin Concerto by exiled Latvian composer Gundaris Pone, composed in 1959, was performed by Zariņš (with the composer himself wielding the baton) and recorded in 1990. The work opens dramatically, with loud bursts of sound suddenly appearing, then dissipating as an eerie quiet takes over, punctuated by what seems like a searching melody performed by Zariņš. Pone, considered as the only truly avantgarde Latvian composer (avantgarde was frowned upon in Soviet occupied Latvia, so only an exiled Latvian could freely compose in this style), displays this in the third movement, which opens with what sounds like a crack of a whip, indicating the driving tempo of the music that follows. The orchestra is a blur of motion, all the way to the conclusion, with Zariņš’ providing a virtuoso performance.

There is an interesting note in the CD booklet about Romualds Kalsons’ Violin Concerto – that, in this performance, Zariņš is truly a soloist – there are no other violins in the orchestra. Zariņš’ performance then takes on an additional dimension in this work that fuses many different styles and moods, like in the second movement, which is at times tense, at other times exhibits a kind of dark humor. Moments of contemplation imbue the third movement, while the percussive fourth movement includes an almost hypnotic performance by Zariņš, and the work concludes suddenly, as if it were unexpectedly interrupted.

The CD booklet is full of fascinating anecdotes about the performer, as well as the compositions. For example, Zariņš would regularly carry ten E strings with him, as he would regularly break this string during performances, and Zariņš played a violin made by Latvian luthier Mārtiņš Zemītis (which is also the violin used on the Bartók concerto recording).

Though all four violin concertos are 20th century compositions, there is still significant variety in these performances, and violinist Valdis Zariņš displays his skills throughout these works, adapting and changing to effectively present each work. Along with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Vassily Sinaisky, these four performances reveal the adaptability and talent of the violinist. Of course, it is not possible to summarize all the achievements of Zariņš over just two CDs (and one is keen to hear solo performances of his as well), but the Skani release of Valdis Zariņš proves an effective reminder of what a singular violinist Zariņš was and his immense contribution to Latvian academic music.

For further information, please visit the Skani website

Valdis Zariņš

LMIC/SKANI 074, 2019

Track listing:

CD 1

JEAN SIBELIUS Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47

1. Allegro moderato

2. Adagio di molto

3. Allegro, ma non tanto

BÉLA BARTÓK Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz 112

4. Allegro non troppo

5. Andante tranquillo

6. Allegro molto

CD 2

GUNDARIS PONE Violin Concerto

1. Allegro non troppo sempre di gran maniera

2. Adagio elegiaco un poco rubato

3. Allegro molto vivace

ROMUALDS KALSONS Violin Concerto

4. Allegro ma non troppo

5. Adagio elegiaco un poco rubato

6. Andante con moto

7. Allegro non troppo

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.

Diverse group of singers on Auļi sixth album each display unique native style

Venerable Latvian drum and bagpipe ensemble Auļi have, for almost two decades now, entertained listeners with their powerful and energetic performances. Though mostly performing instrumental arrangements inspired by Latvian folk songs and folklore, the group often collaborates with vocalists to add an additional dimension to their already layered instrumentation.

Expanding the scope of their collaboration rather dramatically, Auļi released their sixth album – Senču balsis (or Voices of the Ancients) in 2019, which features a varied group of singers performing vocals in their own, native style. Guest vocalists include Batzorig Vaanchig from Mongolia, Kai Somby from Norway, Edgars Lipors from Latvia and Albin Paulus from Austria. Highlighting the distinctive vocal talents of each singer, Senču balsis proves to be one of the most diverse Auļi albums yet, displaying the various ways the human voice can be used to sing.

Batzorig Vaanchig performs in the khoomei or ‘throat singing’ style, and also writes his own songs, such as ‘Hunnu guren’, a war song about the Hun Empire. Vaanchig’s khoomei singing, which sounds like a deep growl, but still rhythmic and melodic, fused together with the driving drums and bagpipes of Auļi, creates, gives a cinematic quality to this song about the Hun army setting forth to conquer Asia. Vaanchig also lends his talents to ‘Chinggis Khaan’ (also known as Genghis Khan), an ode to the Mongolian ruler of the 13th century. This epic tale, which also features Vaanchig performing the morin khuur, a traditional Mongolian stringed instrument, creates a music tribute to the fearsome (and often brutal) conqueror.

As a somewhat jarring contrast to Mongolian throat singing, Albin Paulus, an accomplished yodeler, provides a rousing performance of the Austrian folksong ‘Almerlied Huidirdio’, a song about churning butter and then bringing it to market. The joyous song, which concludes on the positive note of making a lot of money at market, displays not just Paulus’ talents, but also the seamless flow between Auļi and this traditional Alpine vocal style. Paulus is also a songwriter, and one of his original works, the rapid and almost frenetic ‘Maijodler’, features him rapidly yodeling over the pulsating beat of Auļi.

Representing the Sami joik singing tradition, Kai Somby sings in a dramatic, wordless manner on songs like ‘Orbina’. Joiking is described as ‘an expression of a person’s feelings without words’, and this becomes clear on the weighty, fateful ‘Orbina’ (or ‘Orphan’), a traditional Sami joik, with the drums and bagpipes of Auļi accenting the tragic sadness of the performance. Somby also performs on the brief, yet expansive ‘Eallin’ (or ‘Life’), which, as the title indicates, is a joik about all the stages of a person’s life, from birth to old age. Though it has a subdued beginning, the sections of the joik are bridged with pounding, almost sudden interludes by Auļi.

The Latvian singing style is represented by Edgars Lipors, who is also known from his work with the men’s folk group Vilki. Lipors has spent most of his life immersed in Latvian folk songs and folklore, and his deep reverence and appreciation for the music can be heard on songs like ‘Bērītim, kumeļam’, a wedding song which also features all the other guest vocalists on the album, creating a memorable and fascinating pastiche of the varied singing styles. The incantation ‘Dzelzs vārdi’, a song about preparing for war, provides for a memorable conclusion to this collection.

The CD booklet has extensive details on not just all the guest singers but also notes on each individual’s singing styles as well. It also notes that Auļi journeyed to the homelands of all the vocalists, to ensure an authentic and immersive listening experience. Bringing together varied singing styles, with the drums and bagpipes of Auļi providing the foundation, Senču balsis creates a vivid musical journey.

For further information, please visit the Auļi website.

Senču balsis

Auļi

Lauska, CD090, 2019

Track listing:

  1. Bērītim, kumeļam
  2. Hunnu guren
  3. Almerlied Huidirdio
  4. Orbina
  5. Tēva bites
  6. Tavan Hasag
  7. Auerhahnjodler
  8. Uhcavieljaš
  9. Chinggis Khaan
  10. Maijodler
  11. Eallin
  12. Dzelzs vārdi

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.

Lyrical power of cello highlighted by talented Latvian cellist Gunta Ābele

The cello, with its rich, melancholic sound and tones, has long been a beloved instrument among musicians and listeners. Adapting through the centuries to varied styles and environments – from Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites in the 18th century, to more recent arrangements of rock songs by groups like Apocalyptica and Latvia’s Melo-M, the sound of the cello has always been timeless.

The cello has also inspired many composers, and the cello repertoire has a particularly rich array of solo compositions. To present a few selections from this repertoire, notable Latvian cellist Gunta Ābele recorded an album of three solo cello works. Entitled Magnificello, the album was released by the Latvian national record label Skani in 2019.

Ābele’s album is truly a solo album – the three works included, by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, Latvian Pēteris Vasks, and Catalan Gaspar Cassadó, are for solo cello – no other instrument is to be heard on these recordings. Such is the magic of the cello, that even when performed solo, the sounds and images conjured by the performances by Ābele would make any other instrument superfluous.

Kodály’s work Sonata for Solo Cello op. 8, composed in 1915, unites both classical elements as well as Hungarian folk songs and dances. The majestic first movement, which makes dramatic tonal leaps, also has a mysterious element to it, with quick bursts of melody followed by subdued, somber sounds, all the while being dramatic and expressive. The slower second movement, with its long, mournful tones, brings forth a darker mood, perhaps influenced by the upheaval in Europe at that time. The third movement, perhaps the most overtly Hungarian of the three, is an almost frenetic dance, and Ābele’s performance is both energetic and nuanced.

In the Latvian repertoire, Pēteris Vasks’ “Grāmata” (or “Book”) for cello is a well known and beloved entry. Its two movements, being polar opposites (the first movement being fortissimo and the second being pianissimo), reveal a kind of duality, a kind of balance that only the sound of the cello could provide. Due to the work being so popular (it has been recorded many times by cellists around the world), it is a particular challenge to have one’s performance stand out, but Ābele is certainly up for it. From its tense, almost screaming beginnings, the first movement is at times tense, other times almost terrifying. Though composed in 1978, long before any faint hopes for Latvian freedom from Soviet occupation could be felt, Vasks perhaps expresses the pain and suffering of the oppressive regime in his music. The second movement, resigned and disconsolate, seems to project little hope or positivity. The cello is enhanced by Ābele singing a soft, wordless melody, giving the work an eerie, ghostly quality. Ābele’s performance of this work is both memorable and moving, confirming again why this is one of Vasks’ most affecting and poignant works.

Cassadó’s three movement Suite for Solo Cello, composed in the mid-1920s, a golden age of Spanish culture (the era of Dalí and Lorca, among many others), also synthesizes various cultural elements. Beginning with the Preludio-Fantasia, which seems to call to J. S. Bach’s Cello Suites, though also imbued with more modern elements, which then leads into the joyous dance of the second movement – Sardana. The suite concludes with the melodic Intermezzo e Danza Finale, an almost playful and festive performance, allowing Ābele to display her abilities in interpreting a multi-faceted work like this.

The three distinctive, 20th century cello works on Magnificello highlight Gunta Ābele’s skill and talent with the solo cello repertoire in its many diferent forms. All three of the works, expressive and multi-layered in their own distinctive ways, confirm not just Ābele’s abilities, but also the versatility and lyrical power of the cello.

For further information, please visit Gunta Ābele’s website and the Skani website.

Magnificello

Gunta Ābele

LMIC/SKANI 073, 2019

Track listing:

ZOLTÁN KODÁLY

Sonata for Solo Cello op. 8 (1915)

1. Allegro maestoso ma appassionato

2. Adagio (con grand’ espressione)

3. Allegro molto vivace

PĒTERIS VASKS

Grāmata čellam (1978)

(“The Book” for Solo Cello)

4. Fortissimo

5. Pianissimo

GASPAR CASSADÓ

Suite for Solo Cello

6. Preludio-Fantasia

7. Sardana

8. Intermezzo e Danza Finale

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.