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Violin Concertoa. Cello Concertob. Symphonic Variationsc.
aValdis ZarinH (violin); bAgnese Rugevica (cello); cJanis Zilbers (piano); Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Terje Mikkelsen.
Simax Classics PSC1213 (full price, 1 hour 13 minutes).
Producer Erik Gard Amundsen. Engineer Karlis Pinnis. Date April, June, October 1999. Further information about Kalsons is available from website

Romualds Kalsons is a Latvian composer, born in 1936, and one of the most prominent figures of the generation preceding that of the better-known Peteris Vasks. Kalsons's life has evolved around Riga. He studied there, at the Latvian National Conservatory (renamed the Jazeps Vitols Latvian Academy of Music since Latvia regained its independence) - composition under Adolfs Skulte, conducting with Jazeps Lindbergs. He has taught at his Alma Mater since 1973; in 1988 he was awarded a chair in composition and since 1990 has been head of composition. If you want to learn more about him, look at the website listed above. OK, so it's in Latvian, but the list of Kalsons's major compositions won't present you with any difficulty.

Kalsons's style emerges naturally from that of Prokofiev and Shostakovich: biting, shot through with piquant dissonance, scored with the same emphasis on contrasted treble and bass, at the expense of softer middle-range sonorities. The Russian heritage is coloured with a surprising oriental streak - with its innocence regained, my ear might have guessed the composer was Armenian or from somewhere else in ex-Soviet Middle Asia. There's not a hint of false sentiment in the music; instead, the prevailing mood is of strong-willed irony, even grotesquerie here and there, borne forward on a tide of muscular orchestral invention, often contrapuntally derived - the finale of the Cello Concerto (1970), for example, both perky and dark, blends passacaglia and fugue. The Violin Concerto and Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, both from 1978, are contrasting cousins, the concerto expansive, bright and playful (the solo part made more prominent through the absence of orchestral violins), the variations more closely focused, less concerned with colour.

This is, by my reckoning, the third recording to be made for Simax by the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under its genial new chief conductor, the Norwegian Terje Mikkelsen (hence, I imagine, the Oslo-Riga axis that brings out Latvian music on a Norwegian label). I detected a hint of hesitancy in the attack on their first Simax project together, two discs of the stage music of Johan Halvorsen - glorious music all the same. Here, on home ground, the Latvians pitch in with enthusiasm and aplomb: there's real commitment in their playing, which Mikkelsen converts into a genuine symphonic élan. The soloists are likewise plainly passionate about what they are doing, with techniques to match.

Simax provides a good, clean recording with plenty of body and there are informative notes from Ilona Brege. Definitely worth investigation.

Martin Anderson

This review will appear in the October issue of International Record Review

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