Comparison: Symphony No. 8 (Edgars
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
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
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.
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
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
see also review
by Rob Barnett