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Janis IVANOVS (1906-83)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor (1956) [33.45]
Symphony No. 20 in E flat major (1981) [26.25]
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, Jan 1997. DDD
NAXOS 8.555740 [60.10]

Comparison: Symphony No. 8 (Edgars Tons/Campion Cameo)

Jânis Ivanovs, considered Latviaís greatest composer of orchestral music, lived his entire adult life under the rule of the Soviet Union. Ivanovs experienced periods when the Soviet juggernaut was relatively magnanimous in its dealings with Latvia and other times when the Soviet fist was highly oppressive and brutal. His music reflects these shifts in attitude to the extent that his twenty complete symphonies represent an aural account of 20th century life for the Latvian people.

Ivanovs was born and raised in the Latgale section of Eastern Latvia that borders Lithuania, Byelorussia and Russia. Having belonged in the past to Poland and Russia, the ethnic mix is quite varied. Growing up and drawing strongly on his roots, Ivanovsí music often carries the folk music of his native land in a multi-cultural milieu.

Even into the latter-half of the 20th century, Ivanovsí music maintained a late-romantic nature with a hint of impressionism. Once into the 1970s, he took on a more 20th century sensibility with a strong militaristic element. Generally, his musical moods paralleled the degree of national freedom existing at any point in time. The degree of freedom enjoyed was totally controlled from Moscow. That the control was always based on military strength never escaped Ivanovs.

To most of the world, Ivanovs is an obscurity; regrettably so. His music has an aspect to it that rivals the music of the greatest masters: his themes and melodies. I have several Ivanovs discs in addition to the Naxos offering, and there are very few of his themes that are not powerfully compelling or exquisitely gorgeous. These are themes that demand to be heard, and their relative neglect is almost criminal.

Alas, there are other musical considerations mandating that Ivanovs not be placed on the 20th century pedestal. I do not sense a strong degree of coherency among the themes and sections, the result being a series of episodes. Another negative consideration is that thematic development can be rather thin. A good example of this is the 1st Movement of Symphony No. 8 where the few minutes of the middle of the movement lack direction and tend to meander. This contrasts greatly with a composer such as Ernest Bloch who constantly advances his musical arguments. However, I just canít get those wonderful Ivanovs themes out of my head, and I strongly suggest that readers investigate his discography.

The remaining issue is whether this new Naxos offering is an excellent way to discover Ivanovs. I am not fully convinced for two reasons. First, the strings lack the immediacy that is so important to music of epic proportions. This deficiency becomes most evident when the forward brass take center-stage with a clarity and projection never heard from the strings. Second, Yablonsky could be significantly more exuberant and energetic in the faster-paced movements of each symphony. A comparison with the older Latvian Radio broadcast of Symphony No. 8 from 1961 clearly reveals a lack of high energy from Yablonsky.

Concerning the two programmed works, Symphony No. 8 bespeaks the full bloom of late-romanticism although written in the 1950s. The 1st Movement revolves around the introductory theme provided by the strings and is thickly textured to the point of being leaden; the mood evokes deep conflict, foreboding and remorse. Then the first subject offers a fast-paced and churning Allegro followed by a second subject that is spiritually optimistic and greatly contrasts with the two previous themes. The main climax of the 1st Movement comes with about three minutes remaining when the introduction returns with the brass leading the way to a tremendous outpouring of musical tension and might. This climax almost rivals the infamous cadenza to the first movement of Prokofievís Piano Concerto No. 2.

The 2nd Movement Allegro is a Scherzo of abundant energy offset by a pastoral section of irresistible lyricism. A strong element of militaristic activity prevails in the first section highlighted by the aggressive brass and drums. This makes the pastoral section all the more effective and surprising.

The 3rd Movement Andante is notable for its thick melancholy strengthened by an ostinato eighth note accompaniment. Among the many thematic strokes of genius in this symphony, Ivanovs abruptly puts a temporary end to self-pity with a clarinet taking us to lands of enchantment followed by flutes to enhance the effect.

In the 4th Movement, we hear the militaristic nature of Ivanovsí music. Powerful themes race all over the landscape highlighted by the return of the 1st Movementís dark introduction, now led by the brass. The symphony ends on a bleak note, and its messages are explained by the composer as "an account of the fifty years I have witnessed".

Moving forward a quarter century, Symphony No. 20 eschews most of the composerís late-romantic leanings and replaces these with a militaristic bent much more intense than in Symphony No. 8. This is industrial-strength music, fully reflective of the brutal oppression that Latvia experienced for decades. The outer movements convey tremendous conflict, the 2nd Movement Adagio is tragic, and the 3rd Movement Menuetto is laced with irony. The only part of the symphony of positive mood is the middle section of the Adagio with its confident legato. As with Symphony No. 8, Ivanovs makes frequent and stunning use of the woodwinds and brass.

Overall, this music has some exceptional qualities and certainly deserves your attention. There are other Ivanovs recordings on the market including two discs of symphonies conducted by Yablonsky on Marco Polo and seven volumes of the orchestral music on Campion. As indicated earlier, Naxos has competition for Symphony No. 8 on a Campion disc; this is of older vintage but more idiomatic of the composerís soundworld. For Symphony No. 20, Naxos and Yablonsky have the field to themselves.

With the above factors in mind, I do recommend the new Naxos offering. However, this music cries out for an exceptional conductor, orchestra, and soundstage. Sad to say, none of the Ivanovs discs currently available possesses all of these three qualities. Iíll keep my fingers crossed and in the meantime occasionally listen to Yablonsky.

Don Satz

see also review by Rob Barnett


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