Baltic Jazz Trio celebrates centenaries of three Baltic States

The Baltic Jazz Trio is one of the premiere jazz ensembles in the Baltics, and have been performing together for more than a decade. As their name indicates, the trio is made up of three musicians from the Baltic States – drummer Māris Briežkalns from Latvia, double bassist Toivo Unt from Estonia, and pianist Dainius Pulauskas.

To celebrate the recent centenaries of the three Baltic states, the ensemble came together to record jazz versions of compositions by Baltic composers, and the album, simply entitled Centenary, was released in 2018.

One of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s best known works is ‘Für Alina’. Originally for solo piano, the work, dedicated to a daughter’s friends whose family had split up, is very quiet and tender, and the Trio’s interpretation of this work preserves the intimacy and longing that is imbued throughout the piece, particularly in Pulauskas’ piano performance.

Originally written for string orchestra, Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ ‘Viatore’ loses none of its quiet intensity and weightiness in the trio’s performance. The music is in a near constant state of motion, with Unt’s double bass providing the backbone for this entrancing interpretation.

The Trio performs two preludes by Lithuanian composer Mikalojus Čiurlionis. Čiurlionis was also well known as a painter, and considered a major force in European abstract art. Many of his musical works could also be considered paintings, and the Trio brings forth the vivid colors and elements in the two preludes – Op. 11 No. 3 and Op. 7 No 4. Briežkalns’ drums are used not just to keep time but also to add to the sonic palette, particularly in the expressive No. 3 and the rhythmic and pulsating No. 4.

The album concludes with the Baltic Jazz Trio’s performance of Latvian popular music composer Raimonds Pauls’ ‘For Mother’. Pauls, with his peerless knack for composing catchy and memorable melodies, provides a sentimental and nostalgic mood, and the Trio captures the essence of the work, bringing this musical journey through the Baltics to a satisfying close.

According to Briežkalns, the album was meant to flow together as a cohesive musical narrative, rather than having disparate tempos and styles. Though some may find that the works are very similar in nature and style, the reserved and even occasionally somber performances do allow for an absorbing, engrossing listen, with no musical shocks along the way.

Centenary is a significant musical accomplishment, particularly considering that many of the works on the album were originally more academic music compositions, and presenting these in a jazz style could have been a challenge. However, these three talented and accomplished Baltic musicians have revealed new elements in these works with their jazz interpretations. The Baltic Jazz Trio has confirmed themselves as a truly masterful ensemble, and Centenary is a worthy gift to the Baltic States on their 100th anniversaries.


Baltic Jazz Trio

MMC, MMCCD021, 2018

Track listing

  1. For Alina – Arvo Pärt
  2. Viatore – Pēteris Vasks
  3. Prelude Op.11. Nr.3 – Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis
  4. Prelude Op.7. Nr.4 – Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis
  5. Siin On Oja – Olav Ehala
  6. Chestnut Blossom – Dainius Pulauskas
  7. Nostalgia – Dainius Pulauskas
  8. For Mother – Raimonds Pauls

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.

Sinfonietta Rīga vividly brings to life works of new Latvian composers

The Latvian national music label Skani was established to, among other goals, promote new works by Latvian composers to a global audience. One recent such example is the collection Chamber Symphonies, three symphonic works performed by the orchestra Sinfonietta Rīga, conducted by Normunds Šnē. The CD, released in 2017, collects three single movement symphonies by Andris Dzenītis, Anitra Tumševica, and Linda Leimane.

All three works were commissioned by Sinfonietta Rīga, and each composer was given the challenge of composing a symphonic work for the comparatively smaller orchestra. Though a chamber orchestra, the performances reveal that even a smaller ensemble can be powerful, and can provide vivid and dynamic interpretations, full of color and nuance.

Composer Andris Dzenītis has established himself as one of the premiere composers in Latvia today, and has already had a productive and successful career, and he was already winning composition awards at the age of 16. He has already won the Latvian Great Music Award twice (2007, 2015). According to the CD booklet, Dzenītis says that his “work is emotionally guided by the relationship between fragility, original force and brutality.” Indeed, much of that can be heard in his contribution to this collection – ‘(Sin)fonietta’. From its mysterious, ominous beginning with a solo clarinet sounding almost like a scream, the work continues its uneasy development, with an ascending cello motif leads to an almost violent climax, an eruption of tension in the strings.

The CD booklet describes composer Anitra Tumševica’s work ‘Die Stimme’ as  “a philosophical generalisation about the voice and its direct and transcendental meanings.” The work presents the concept of the voice in many ways – the voice of God, the media being a kind of voice, and the work presents many individual voices of the instruments. The work has a kind of cinematic quality to it, and is energetic and driving from the onset. This then leads to a quieter and slower section, with an almost mournful melody heard in the woodwinds. Later in the work, we hear the actual voices of the orchestra members – being unintelligible, this gives the work an unsettling feeling.

Calling the works collected here challenging would be an understatement. As with many other modern academic compositions, the composers eschew traditional melody and forms to create sonic explorations and experiments, which may be difficult for some listeners to appreciate. Perhaps the most challenging work on the CD is Linda Leimane’s ‘Guesstimations’. According to the booklet, Leimane’s music is “characterised by high intensity and brutality combined with a subtly varied colour palette.” In the work, the composer seems to want to intentionally disorient the listener with sudden sounds and changes in tempo, giving the work a kind of dreamlike sensation, particularly in the thundering drums, along with the rising and falling strings.

Sinfonietta Rīga, established in 2006, has long been established as one of the premiere orchestras in Latvia. Led by conductor Normunds Šnē, the chamber orchestra displays its proficiency with a broad variety of musical offerings, from the Baroque era to modern works, including many experimental and non-traditional performances. The ensemble has won the Latvian Great Music Award on three separate occasions, and also won a Grammy award for their performance of Adam’s Lament by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Šnē, who has also worked with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and the Latvian National Opera Orchestra, has collaborated with many well known musicians, and also founded the new music festival Arēna in 2003.

Sinfonietta Rīga and conductor Normunds Šnē vividly bring these new compositions to life on Chamber Symphonies. Vividly displaying the wide variety and creative spectrum of modern Latvian academic music, the ensemble provides nuanced and compelling interpretations of these works. The record label Skani, committed to presenting the best in Latvian compositions and performances, continues to showcase the many facets and creativity of Latvian musicians and composers, and these three compositions, in the hands of exceptional musicians like Sinfonietta Riga and conductor Normunds Šnē, prove to be worthy entries in modern music.

For further information, visit the Sinfonietta Rīga website and the Skani website.

Chamber Symphonies

Sinfonietta Rīga

LMIC/SKANI 059, 2017

Track listing

  1. (Sin)fonietta – Andris Dzenītis
  2. Die Stimme – Anitra Tumseviča
  3. Guesttimations – Linda Leimane

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.

Latvian Radio Choir’s “Daugava” bring Rainis’ words, Brauns’ music to life

It would not be an exaggeration to call the song ‘Saule, Pērkons, Daugava’ (music by composer Mārtiņš Brauns, lyrics by poet Rainis) one of the most popular, if not the most popular and beloved of modern Latvian songs. It is always one of the emotional culmination points of any Latvian Song Festival, and the song is so treasured that there have been serious efforts to establish it as the new official Latvian anthem. With its stirring music and triumphant words, it inspires and galvanizes not just Latvians, but others worldwide (the Catalonians have used Brauns’ music for their own anthem).

Rainis wrote most of ‘Daugava’ in 1916, and it experienced its first public performance in 1919. Rainis, observing the suffering of the Latvian people during World War I, intended the poem to inspire Latvians with ideas of freedom and independence. In an uncanny coincidence, Rainis even predicted the battles with the forces of Bermondt on the shores of the Daugava River at the end of 1919.

‘Saule, Pērkons, Daugava’ was initially composed by Mārtiņš Brauns as part of a larger choir suite, based on Rainis’ epic poem ‘Daugava’. Premiered at the height of the Latvian Awakening in 1988, Brauns’ music became a rallying cry during the era, and has remained one of the most significant musical achievements of that era.

Recognizing the significance and national importance of not just the song ‘Saule, Pērkons, Daugava’, but the entire Daugava suite, the Latvian Radio Choir, conducted by Sigvards Kļava, released a recording of the full composition in 2018, which also features the composer himself on keyboards and occasional solo vocal. The album, entitled Daugava, presents the full work, reaffirming again the significance of the whole of this composition. It is no surprise that the album won the best recording of academic music at the 2019 Golden Microphone Award ceremony.

Brauns, who also performed extensively with the rock group Sīpoli, brings much of the theatricality and intensity of rock music to the Daugava cycle with his keyboard performances, full of varied musical elements and even sound effects. The stirring ‘Sasaukšanās’, a call to all Latvians, begins the song cycle, and then Brauns’ keyboards bring a dramatic atmosphere to the subdued and somber ‘Tumsas māte’. Brauns himself provides a memorable and powerful vocal performance in ‘Ilgu vējš’. More theatricality can be heard in the appropriately angry ‘Dusmu dziesma’, where the choir literally growls phrases like ‘brīves vārdu traipījuši’ (they have stained the name of freedom).

The mournful ‘Daugavmāte’ is a song about the nurturing power of the Daugava River, and there are tender moments as well, such as the gentle ‘Sarkanbaltais karodziņš’, an ode to the three historical regions of Latvia.

‘Trimdas dziesma’ is a call for Latvians to unite, those in Latvia as well as those in Latvia, and it also provides a lament for the unfortunate Latvian tendency to devour one another in lyrics like ‘Kādi zvēri esam mēs? Kožam paši savu tautu!’ (What kind of animals are we? We tear each other apart!).

The work, of course, concludes with the appropriately anthemic ‘Saule. Pērkons. Daugava.’ Besides being the culmination of the larger work itself, it is also one of the pinnacles of Latvian music, a rare perfect meld of music and poetry. The Radio Choir’s performance of it is stirring and moving, and confirms the power of this song, no matter the performer – be it a smaller choir or tens of thousands of singers at the Song Festival.

Daugava is a true treasure, and this recording of it is not just a passionate, full spirited performance of the song suite, but also a valuable musical document, a triumphant and memorable achievement. The Latvian Radio Choir, along with conductor Sigvards Kļava, vividly bring Rainis’ words and Brauns’ music to life, creating an engrossing and dramatic interpretation that captivates the listener with its vision of the role of the Daugava River in the fate of the Latvian nation.

For further information, please visit the Latvian Radio Choir website

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.