Liepāja Symphony updates a classic

Pūt, vējiņi

"Balancing on a razor’s edge between banality and beauty, the spiritual and rational" is how Liene Jakovļeva aptly characterizes the music of Imants Kalniņš, in her notes for this wonderful new recording of Kalnins’ music for the film Pūt, vējiņi!

Jānis Rainis, the esteemed Latvian poet and playwright, wrote his classic play in folk verse, "Pūt, vējiņi!", in 1913. Sixty years later, Gunārs Piesis directed a film adaptation that has also become a classic, thanks greatly to Kalniņš’ brilliant musical contribution. While the film itself has not been widely seen outside Latvia, some of the music was available on a Melodiya record shortly after the film’s release. This is how I first came to know it 20 years ago, listening to a scratchy little second-hand vinyl disc and marveling at the composer’s vivid imagination and skill in blending popular, folk and classical elements.

"Pūt, vējiņi" (Blow, wind!) is also the first line of a folk tune that is indelibly etched in every Latvian’s psyche, as beloved and significant as the national anthem. Heard at the beginning and end of this score, the tune frames a tale of love and despair in music of a deeply cultural context. But Kalniņš’ handling of the tune takes Rainis’ allegory to yet another level: he embellishes it and presents it on an electric guitar, against a symphonic backdrop! At first hearing, this juxtaposition is jarring to say the least, but it works and ultimately is exquisitely memorable.

Many Latvian composers write in different styles and media, for varied audiences, equally comfortable writing symphonies, popular songs, or folk music arrangements. But Kalniņš doesn’t compartmentalize, keeping idioms or audiences apart. Unafraid of extremes, he positively revels in juxtaposing these different worlds, such as when he calls for a rock drummer in his Fourth Symphony. Expressing himself unflinchingly and eloquently, with honesty, directness and without rigid boundaries, Kalniņš’ skill in melding elements from seemingly antithetical traditions results in a uniquely personal expression that touches and satisfies a wide audience.

This is the second recording of Kalniņš’ music from his hometown Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, and the first orchestral recording I’ve heard from Māris Kupčs, the conductor here. So often, remakes of familiar film scores disappoint, especially when the nuances and flavor of the original are clearly etched in the listener’s mind. But Kupčs’ faithfulness to the letter and the spirit of the original, and vivid, compelling characterizations of the new sections, make this a terrific release. Equally commendable for their contributions are the fine ensemble of singers.

The compact disc is beautifully packaged in a tri-fold sleeve with images from the film. Notes are in English and Latvian, though they are more ruminative than informational. A brief plot outline would have been helpful in guiding listeners unfamiliar with Rainis’ play. Or do the record’s producers assume a limited audience of listeners already familiar with the plot? They shouldn’t. The fully professional presentation of this disc, the appeal of the music, and Imants Kalnins’ growing international reputation should assure a successful life for this disc, within and without the Latvian community.


Pūt, vējiņi

Imants Kalniņš

UPE Recording Co.,  2000


One thought on “Liepāja Symphony updates a classic

  1. Thanks for this helpful article on Kalnins’ music to Rainis’ poetry! I just picked up the old Melodija boxed set (with narry a word of English!) and I just needed to know with whom I was dealing. I am now looking very much forward to listening to the music when I get home!

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