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Osvaldas BALAKAUSKAS (b. 1937)
Symphony No. 4 (1998) [32:22]
Symphony No. 5 (2001) [29:33]
Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra/Juozas Domarkas
rec. National Philharmonic Hall, Vilnius, Lithuania, 21-23 May 2003 (No. 4); 7-9 September 2004 (No. 5)
NAXOS 8.557605 [63:14]

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Musical life in the three Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is indeed active. They have a herd of creative and adventurous composers, and musicians all operating on a very high level, both collectively and individually. As a producer of mainly chamber music concerts for more than ten years I have had the good fortune to cooperate with several superb groups from this area. This has also given me opportunities to hear some of the new music from these countries. Estonians Arvo Pärt and Veljo Törmis are well-known and appreciated also in the West, while Lepo Sumera and, maybe the hottest name today, Erkki-Sven Tüür, crave to be heard. In Latvia Peteris Vasks is coming more and more to the forefront and now from Lithuania comes Osvaldas Balakauskas with a large production, of which his Requiem has already been released by the ever-adventurous Naxos.

Balakauskas, who also was Lithuania’s first ambassador to France, Spain and Portugal between 1992 and 1994, has developed his own mathematically based compositional principles, and he also invents his own scales. The two fairly new symphonies, presented here, are eventful and, I would think, not too difficult to assimilate for listeners with some experience of contemporary music. He mixes various building stones, jazz being one of the influences. The music may not be melodic in a traditional romantic manner – there are no tunes that you walk away humming – but every so often there are small fragments of melodies, sometimes growing to phrases or even blocks of longer melodic lines, lushly orchestrated. Several rhythmic and/or thematic elements are often developed simultaneously, creating a dense orchestral facture. The instrumentation is mostly rather transparent and makes it easy to follow the proceedings.

Symphony No. 4 is in three movements, entitled Octa, Hendeca and Deca, corresponding to the scales Balakauskas invented for the purpose, consisting respectively of eight, eleven and ten tones. It is hardly necessary to know these scales, nor to be aware of the mathematical principles along which he works, just as it is possible to enjoy Alban Berg’s Wozzeck without realizing the compositional principles. The first movement starts very romantically with harp and low strings against a double bass drone. At 3:52 it changes direction, becoming livelier, timpani is heard, there are higher strings and some woodwind. At 5:32 the brass enters, the rhythms become more jagged, nervous, leading to a first climax at 6:20 with a snare drum whipping up the tension. At 7:08 high strings weave a plangent carpet of sounds, vaguely reminiscent of Allan Pettersson (his seventh symphony) but with more rhythmic intensity. Then the music gradually dies away. The second is more outward with heavily syncopated rhythms that permeate the whole movement, which is dominated by the brass, later also woodwind, creating a sound that brings to mind Gil Evans’ writing for Miles Davis on the legendary “Miles Ahead”. The harp and the bass drone returns for the final movement, static music with instrumental solos petering out and then disappearing. Melodic fragments come and go, some of them of great beauty. Towards the end the intensity increases, only to more or less evaporate during the last couple of minutes. The harp says a reticent “farewell” and the rest is silence.

Symphony No. 5, composed to a commission from the Vilnius Festival, is much more extrovert. It is in the traditional four movements but these are just entitled I, II, III and IV. The first starts with powerful outbreaks, interspersed with more reflective passages, but there is an eager nervousness constantly present and the whole movement is filled with vitality. The second movement is more elegiac to begin with but soon a diversity of voices is heard, like an unorganized meeting. Jazzy rhythms creep in, we hear a solo trumpet and then it all dies away. The third movement has a pastoral feeling with a solo oboe playing a central part. The short final movement is a rhythmically swinging affair, reaching orgiastic heights and bringing the symphony to a jubilant, no-nonsense end. This movement would be a riveting encore for any symphony concert and it would surely bring the house down.

Further acquaintance with these fascinating works will eventually reveal their long-term potential. Having played them now a couple of times and returned to the finale of No. 5 an extra time, I feel confident that Balakauskas is a very distinctive voice in today’s symphonic world. I would urge readers as yet unfamiliar with his music to lend this disc an ear. The playing of the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra is first class, having no doubt played the music more than once. I suspect that the composer has had a say in the matter of interpretation. Sonically the issue can’t be faulted and with insightful liner notes by Linas Paulauskis and Sarunas Nakas this is a high quality product retailing at super-budget price.

Göran Forsling

see also Review by Rob Barnett


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