Riga Saxophone Quartet recordings display versatility of the saxophone

The Riga Saxophone Quartet, an ensemble with thirty years of history, has raised the profile of the saxophone as a serious academic instrument with their performances and collaborations with other musicians. Since its inception, the driving force of the group has been renowned Latvian alto saxophonist Artis Sīmanis, and, since 2016, the other members of the ensemble are Katrīna Kivleniece-Cābule on soprano saxophone, Ainars Šablovskis on tenor saxophone, and baritone saxophonist Baiba Tilhena.

In 2021, the Riga Saxophone Quartet released the album Saule tikai (or ‘Merely Sun’) a collection of five modern works composed by Latvian composers, and the recordings display not just the skill of the Quartet, but also the versatility of the saxophone – the diverse styles and sounds that saxophone music can have.

The poetry of Imants Ziedonis inspired ‘Divas fantāzijas’ by Latvian American composer Dace Aperāne, a work that features the RSQ performing together with pianist Herta Hansena. The first fantasy, ‘Uz mēness pusi’ is tender and lyrical, with a dreamy melody in the piano joined by the freely flowing sounds of the saxophones. The second fantasy ‘Saule tikai – aplis’ begins with mysterious, lyrical interplay between the saxophones, becomes playful, and then concludes on a somber note, with rising notes in the saxophones, which then seem to evaporate with the sound of a triangle.

Accordionist Natālija Meļņikoviča joins the RSQ for the recording of composer Mārīte Dombrovska’s ‘Dīvainie sapņi’, a three-movement work inspired by imagination and dreams. Much like dreams, the work is full of unexpected twists, at times reassuring, at times ominous. The sound of the accordion adds to the overall uneasy feel of the work, particularly in the first movement, which begins calmly, then seems to gradually turn into a nightmarish vision. The second movement is like a strange dance, while the third movement has an eerie calm about it, almost like a sense of dread, and then concludes on a more melodic note, but then the work stops suddenly, almost as if suddenly waking from a dream.

Composer Rihards Dubra often has sacred and spiritual elements in his works, and his contribution to this collection, ‘Vidi quattuor angelos’, is a vocal instrumental work with text from the Book of Revelations. The RSQ is joined by mezzo-soprano Ieva Parša, a singer with extensive experience in singing modern works. ‘Vidi quattuor angelos’ is reverent and full of piety, with Parša’s vocals being both reserved and rich with spiritual veneration.

Composer Edgars Mākens has performed with indie rock bands Gaujarts and Manta, is also a composer of theater music, and the inspiration for his ‘Rīgas triptihs’ was the towers, market and bridges of Rīga. The RSQ, joined by percussionist Guntars Freibergs vividly present the images and atmosphere of Mākens’ work – from the solemn ‘Torņi’, a vision of the many famous towers of Rīga – not just church towers like on St. Peter’s Church, but also the radio tower on Zaķusala. The lively second movement – ‘Tirgus’ – allows the RSQ to paint a picture of the Rīga Central Market and all those in it – merchants, shoppers, tourists, all mixing together. The many bridges of Rīga are presented in ‘Tilti’, and one imagines walking along these bridges during sunset, and the RSQ conjures a multi-colored impression of this evening stroll.

Composer and percussionist Rihards Zaļupe provides the rhythmic and perpetually moving ‘Extension in Blur’, a work inspired by photographs by Australian Latvian artist Roberts Birze. The pulse of the work is generated by the Morse code equivalent of the title, and alternates between short and long pulses. The RSQ take these pulses and create a vibrant, energetic musical kaleidoscope.

Revising and updating existing beliefs on what the saxophone is capable of and what kind of music it can play, the Riga Saxophone Quartet provide fresh and varied displays of the saxophone’s capabilities on Saule tikai. From reverent, spiritual works, to lively contemporary visions, to otherworldly visions of dreams and fantasies, the Riga Saxophone Quartet exhibit the many melodic and sonic possibilities of the saxophone.

For further information, please visit the Riga Saxophone Quartet website.

Saule tikai

Rīgas Saksofonu kvartets

Skani, LMIC 096, 2021

Track listing:

Dace APERĀNE “Divas fantāzijas” / Two Fantasies

  1. I. Uz mēness pusi / Towards the Moon
  2. II. Saule tikai – aplis / Merely Sun

Mārīte DOMBROVSKA “Dīvainie sapņi” / Strange Dreams

  • I. Risoluto
  • II. Scherzando
  • III. Lontano
  • Rihards DUBRA Vidi quattuor angelos

Edgars MĀKENS “Rīgas triptihs” / The Rīga Triptych

  • I. Torņi / The Towers
  • II. Tirgus / Market
  • III. Tilti / The Bridges
  1. Rihards ZAĻUPE “Palielinājums izplūdumā” / Extension in Blur

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 guitarist Reinis Jaunais inspired by nature to create recent album

Latvian guitarist Reinis Jaunais has, throughout his world travels, developed his guitar skills and incorporated many different styles and techniques into his sound. He also regularly works and records with musicians from all over the world to create albums with a broad and varied sonic palette.

His 2020 album Zeme (‘the Earth’ or ‘soil’, among multiple other possible translations of the Latvian word), displays many of these techniques over its twelve songs, the majority of which are instrumentals, though two have vocals.

Most of the songs have titles inspired by nature. The energetic ‘Tveice’ (Swelter) shows Jaunais’ skill with both playing and tapping, and he is joined by Harry Vagrant on the santur (an instrument from the Middle East, a kind of hammered dulcimer which sounds quite like the Latvian kokle) as well as cellist Erna Daugaviete and bassist Ivars Štubis. The santur along with the guitar give this song an almost mystical, unearthly quality.

On ‘Melno smilšu pludmale’ (Black Sand Beach) Jaunais is joined again by Daugaviete as well as Rob van Barschot from the Netherlands on the Guda drum (a kind of percussive instrument that looks like two cymbals joined together – but still able to play on various pitches via vibrations). This relatively new instrument adds a new sonic dimension to the recording, with its melodic and dreamy sound.

Daugaviete’s cello adds a melancholy touch to the somber, subdued ‘Kailsals’ (Frost), while on the almost percussive ‘Stepe’ (or ‘Steppe’) they are joined by Ernests Mediņš on vibraphone. The ethereal sound of the vibraphone, with a melody that sounds like an improvisation, adds to the hypnotic atmosphere of this song.

Though the driving, pulsating ‘Violetās debesis’ (Purple Sky) is a solo performance by Jaunais, the guitarist alternates between playing and tapping the instrument, making it seem like there are multiple performers, giving this song a rich texture. Jaunais also adds vocals to ‘Atceries (kalnos)’, which begins restrained and placid, but then grows in intensity as the song progresses. Jaunais’ breathy, almost fragile voice then does get a bit lost in the mix, making the vocals slightly difficult to understand.

At times lively, at times reserved, the music of Reinis Jaunais combines musical elements and instruments from all over the world to create a diverse musical panorama on Zeme. Jaunais’ guitar and songwriting skills are evident throughout the album, and he brings together many talented musicians and instruments to add additional musical dimensions to his songs.

For further information, please visit Reinis Jaunais’ website.


Reinis Jaunais


Track listing:

  1. Violetās debesis
  2. Atceries (kalnos)
  3. Stepe
  4. Planēta B
  5. Dzīles
  6. Melno smilšu pludmale
  7. Kailsals
  8. Tveice
  9. Naktī
  10. Vētra
  11. Planēta krīt
  12. Dejas epidēmija

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.

Chamber music by composer Gundega Šmite based on Latvian war folksongs

With Latvia located between many larger powers, it is no surprise that many armies have crossed over and trampled Latvia throughout the centuries. War is also a recurring theme in Latvian folksongs – while some Latvian folksongs are heroic and are about the excitement of being a soldier and fighting in battle, there are many more songs that are tragic – about the toll that war takes on a person and a nation. Songs like ‘Div dūjiņas’ or ‘Es karā aiziedams’ reflect on the sadness and loss that results from war, as well as the inevitable heartbreak for families.

Latvian composer Gundega Šmite, using the wealth of folk material about war in Latvian folk songs and dainas, wove together what she calls a ‘folksong mystery’ – a chamber music work that combines both vocal and instrumental segments into a ‘story about the soul’s battle’, a work that is ‘dedicated to the souls that have been and continue to be extinguished by senseless war.’ Šmite enlisted the vocal instrumental ensemble Arcandela to perform this work, and a recording of Es, karā aiziedams was released in 2021.

The Arcandela ensemble is an eclectic collection of instruments and voices. The group, founded in 2015, is made up of soprano Aiga Bokanova, bass-baritone Kārlis Saržants, violinist Liene Brence, double bassist Oskars Bokanovs, Māris Rozenfelds on accordion and pianist Rihards Plešanovs.

Es, karā aiziedams has fourteen sections, with ten folksong interpretations and four instrumental interludes. It is often unsettling and harsh, and though it is based on Latvian folksongs, these are decidedly unmelodic interpretations and performances of them – as if to place emphasis on the text itself and the tragedy it describes. The burst of accordion that begins this performance, in ‘Kur tecēsi, mēnestiņi?’ is immediately unnerving and filled with dread, and the accordion is then supplemented by ominous sounds from the piano and violin, then joined by Bokanova and Saržants, singing folksong lyrics about the moon going to help young men in battle.

Many of the songs have themes of the soldier and his bride, about the sadness of them having to part, and potentially not seeing each other ever again. In ‘Lai ziedēja vainadziņš’, the bride and soldier have a dialogue, the bride questioning why the soldier wanted to marry her, and the soldier says he chose the girl who wept most sorrowfully. Bokanova and Saržants, with their expressive singing, illustrate the despondence of both. A similar atmosphere is generated in ‘Kara vīra līgaviņa’, where a mournful violin is joined by Bokanova’s disconsolate vocals in a song about a bride waiting (possibly in vain) for a soldier to return.

The hopelessness reaches a crescendo on ‘Labāk mani karā kāve’, a lament about how it would have been better to have been drowned as a child than to be raised as a soldier. Here Saržants sings in an almost grotesque manner, with the words themselves being pulled and squeezed, all the while a percussive hammer strikes (Šmite returns to this theme of a blacksmith in the final section of the work).

Es, karā aiziedams, Šmite’s vision of the nightmare of war and how it ruins lives and brings only sorrow is presented in a very expansive, almost explosive way at times, but elsewhere in an intimate and introspective way. It is difficult listening, full of harsh sounds and performances, but it will remain with the listener long after. The ensemble Arcandela vividly perform this vision, resulting in an almost cinematic performance. It remains vague what the ‘mystery’ is that is hinted at in the title of the work, but perhaps that is more meant to be a ‘mystery’ about why war and its associated heartbreak and tragedy is necessary. Šmite’s reinterpretation of these folksongs accentuates the sorrow and sadness contained within them. At times uneasy, at other times even frightening, Gundega Šmite and Arcandela have created an atmospheric and memorable Latvian musical perspective of war.

For further information, please visit the Skani website

Gundega Šmite – Es, karā aiziedams

Ensemble Arcandela

LMIC/SKANI 093, 2021

Track listing:

  1. Ievads. Kur tecēsi, mēnestiņi?
  2. Zīle brēca
  3. Intermēdija Nr. 1
  4. Lai ziedēja vainadziņš
  5. Div’ baloži strautā dzēra
  6. Intermēdija Nr. 2
  7. Līku loku upe tek
  8. Zviedz, zviedz, sirmais zirdziņ!
  9. Intermēdija Nr. 3
  10. Kara vīra līgaviņa
  11. Labāk mani karā kāva
  12. Intermēdija Nr. 4
  13. Pārskrēj’ brāļa kumeliņš
  14. Postlūdija. Kur tecēsi, kaļva sieva?

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.