Sampler is primer on Latvian classical music

Latvian Millenium Classics

In my library of recordings, I have a substantial classical music collection. Composers such as Beethoven, Chopin, Bizet, Rachmaninov and Gershwin are found there, representing diverse nations such as Germany, Poland, France, Russia and the United States. However, up until this year, if you asked me to show you my Latvian classical compact discs, I would have been unable to do so. As for why there were no Latvian classical artists, there were a few reasons. I would plead ignorance, because Latvian classical music almost never gets played in the United States and recordings were also fairly scarce. And even though I knew of the existence of Latvian classical music, it never occurred to me to pursue learning about it, because I knew absolutely nothing about the composers.

This all changed over the course of the past year. Through a very strange set of coincidences, I was able to participate in the Latvian music camp in Ogre this summer. At the camp, I was exposed to a world of music that I never knew existed. Every night there was a concert, and many of the works were Latvian compositions. Such previously unfamiliar names such as Ivanovs, Vasks, Vītols and Einfelde became known to me.

Latvian Millennium Classics is a compilation of 20th century classical pieces by many different Latvian composers, covering all types of styles and genres, with both instrumental and choral works. It is meant to be an introduction to the many great works that were composed in Latvia over that time, and is as good as any introduction to Latvian classical music and performers.

National pride is a theme that is found in many a composer’s music and Alfrēds Kalniņš is no exception. One of my favorite works on the CD, "Mana dzimtene" (My Homeland), reflects that in a symphonic style that reminded me of composers such as Dvorak and Smetana.

The Latvian celebration of Midsummer, Jāni, also is featured in the track from Emīlis Melngailis, "Jāņuvakars" (Midsummer Eve). This is one of the choral pieces on the CD, and probably the one I like the most. The lyrics are all taken from traditional Jāņi songs—it seems like every line comes from a different song. But they all come together to form a very beautiful choral arrangement.

The liner notes (written by Inese Lūsiņa) mention that the "Melanholiskais valsis" (Melancholy Waltz) by Emīls Dārziņš is the most popular symphonic piece of all time in Latvia, and it easy to see why, as it is a simple waltz full of emotion and beauty.

"Bakarola" (Bacarole) by Andrejs Jurjāns, is another memorable symphonic piece, especially for the gorgeous french horn solo by Arvīds Klišāns.

The more modern selections on the CD start with Juris Karlsons’ "Neslēgtais gredzens" (The Open Ring) with lyrics by Rainis. This is another choir piece, performed by the famous Ave Sol chamber choir. However, modern choir music is not something I’ve learned to appreciate yet. The song starts out normally, but soon becomes discordant. Eventually the singing stops and is replaced briefly by chattering of some kind. Interesting, but not really my cup of tea.

Pēteris Vasks, probably the most famous Latvian composer outside of Latvia, gets represented by two works in this collection. Even though he gets two, they are two completely different compositions. The first is "Ainava ar putniem" (Landscape With Birds), a solo flute piece performed by Dita Krenberga. Through the flute, Vasks is able to paint a detailed picture of a field of birds, which I could imagine when I closed my eyes. And at the end, all the birds fly away!

The second piece is the "Cantabile per archi," described in the liner notes as a work of "concentrated spiritual power." This somber string work also expresses great sadness, a common theme throughout many of Vasks’ works.

The "Maija balāde" (May Ballad) by Maija Einfelde, with lyrics by Aspazija, is another modern choral piece, and again, though unique and innovative, is not something I could find myself listening to for an extended amount of time. As the liner notes indicate, Einfelde "works with human voice in the most creative way," something that is clear when listening to this piece.

The organ work "Lauks" (Field) by Imants Zemzaris is best described in the notes as a "meditative" work. I guess it can also be called minimalistic, since it is pretty much the same theme repeated over and over again the entire work. Meditative is an appropriate description, because is does seem that listening to this is like meditation—repeating a mantra over and over again until enlightenment is achieved. Though deceptively simple, listening to this put me into a trance-like state.

The final work on the CD is the fifth and sixth part to the "Kāzu dziesmas" (Wedding Songs) by Romualds Kalsons, a fitting celebratory end to this compilation. This piece reminded me a bit of Prokofiev, but with a unique Latvian flavor to it.

For those who were like me and knew nothing about Latvian classical music, this CD is a great introduction to it. Not only for the composers, but for the performers as well, including conductors such as Leonids Vigners and Vaisily Sinaisky, the Latvian National Symphonic Orchestra, and organist Tālivaldis Deksnis (who is also a fascinating lecturer on the topic of organs), among many others.

I only have very minor complaints about this recording. The liner notes are too brief, with barely a sentence about each composition. Very little history is given, and I would have appreciated knowing when each work was composed, and a bit more biographical information about some of the composers. Also, conspicuous by their absence are Latvian composers Imants Kalniņš and Jānis Ivanovs (probably my favorite Latvian composer). But because this is meant to be an introduction to Latvian classical music, it would have been unrealistic that they could have covered the entire spectrum of classical music in Latvia.

Whether you are a devoted classical music listener, a casual listener, or even if you only know the first few notes in Beethoven’s "Fifth Symphony," Latvian Millennium Classics is a worthy addition to any collection, and will hopefully introduce many people to the world of Latvian classical music.


Latvian Millenium Classics

Various artists

UPE Recording Co.,  2000

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.

4 thoughts on “Sampler is primer on Latvian classical music

  1. I’m trying to find a recording of a piece entitled “Aria”, which I believe is by a Latvian composer. I heard it once on the radio, and I do know that Neni Yervi was conducting. Is anyone familiar with it?
    Thank you for any help you can offer.

    My email (which I’d rather not show in the conventional format because of spammers) is mcutting at

  2. I am currently learning a piano piece by Janis Medins; however, I am unable to find a recording of his music. Do you know where I might find a copy piano score or dvd, cassettee (for listening) of “Daina” by Janis Medins?
    Thank you so much

  3. In response to Sandra’s inquiry, this isn’t directly helpful, but you might be interested to know that there’s a CD recording of Medins piano music by Guna Kurmis called “Latvian Piano Music” (Latviesu Klaviermuzika RS-055) recorded by Radio Stockholm in 1990. Though Kurmis doesn’t play Daina No. 14, regrettably; she does play 5 of the other Dainas (Nos. 3, 7, 8, 18, 21), and a 3-movement Sonatina dedicated to Kurmis herself.

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