Kurland Sounds
Vilnis ŠMĪDBERGS (b. 1944)
Merry-Go-Round (2006) [11:51]
Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
4th Lepāja Concerto Visions of Arctic: Night (2012) [24:01]
Pēteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Symphony No. 2 (1998-99) [38:13]
Ints Dālderis (clarinet)
Lepāja Symphony Orchestra/Atvars Lakstīgala
rec. 2012/13, Lepāja Latvian Society Hall.
The title Kurland Sounds refers to the coastal area of Western Latvia also known as Courland, in which the Lepāja Symphony Orchestra was established in 1881. The region is also where these three composers can be said to originate, so sonic synergy is a very active element of this recording.

Vilni Šmidbergs, now over 70, has had a colourful past as a rock musician in the 1960s and a classical composer in the 1970s and 1980s. Latvia’s path into capitalism has not been as tranquil as some after independence, and Šmidbergs ceased composing in the 1990s, returning to musical creativity before the turn of the century. His Merry-Go-Round is a powerful work, the title of which by no means inhabiting the world of the playground. “A merry-go-round means rotation around the axis. The whirling dance. A dance with its own pain and suffering.” The cycle in which humans seem to learn nothing from their mistakes is a strong aspect of this, as well as some exquisitely orchestrated sections descriptive of Eternity. There is wit and sublime colour in this piece, and its violence is always held within that sense of swirling energy that arcs and recedes. While by no means lacking in challenges this music is by no means abstract. It is easy to absorb and appreciate without its becoming ‘easy’, its climax perhaps taking a little sprinkle from Gustav Holst’s famous celestial revolving orbs.

Ēriks Ešenvalds has been composer in residence at Trinity College in Cambridge University, and his visits to the observatory there enhanced his appreciation of the night sky. His clarinet concerto was a contribution to the Lepāja Symphony Orchestra Concerto series, and it draws in inspiration from the Northern Lights or aurora borealis. The grand scale if this nocturnal vision is evoked through subtle, bird-like trills as well as icy chills and huge orchestral build-ups and climaxes, and there is also an electronic track that creates the feeling of endless vistas. There is an eloquently romantic quality to this music, made intriguingly sparkly through detailed orchestration and a sense of harmonic logic geared to awaken our imaginations to the imagery of the subject. The solo part is engaging but not particularly virtuoso in the traditional sense, and the whole is memorable for extended and almost cinematically beautiful moments.

Pēteris Vasks is the best known of the composers in this programme, at least beyond Latvia. His Second Symphony was premiered at the BBC Proms in 1999, and it elaborates on themes for which Vasks is well-known, such as the forces of nature and “the victory of love over darkness”. Allusions are also made to the composer’s ‘musical soulmates’ Giya Kancheli and Arvo Part, but this is a powerful personal statement and by no means a pastiche, even though there are distinct whiffs of Shostakovich to add to the mix. Vasks' Second Symphony is a large-scale work in which the movements are joined to form a continuous whole. This means it’s not always apparent whether we’re encountering contrasting sections or entirely different movements, but in the end this doesn’t matter. As with the other works here this is in essence romantic music, and in fact by some margin the most romantic of the collection. Reflective passages with the sections of the orchestra used in chamber-music mode appear alongside the impressive sweep of massed tutti sections. Such moments are all too often undercut by percussion, the effects of which can border on the cheesy. The dramas that arise can have huge intensity, but I personally don’t feel the impact is always enhanced with xylophone notes and other assorted rattles, boings and crashes.

This symphony has already been recorded with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds on the Ondine label (see review). There isn’t a great deal to choose between these two versions, though I would say the Ondine recording has the edge in terms of orchestral refinement and sonic depth.

This Lepāja Symphony Orchestra recording is a very fine release indeed, and as the first of a projected series of Latvian music-based titles promises to initiate a rich source of new and exciting material from this part of the world. The recording is rich and detailed, the performances impeccable, and the presentation of the CD is glossy and attractive. In fact, the entire Odradek label initiative with its idealistic non-profit motivation is worth anyone’s attention.

Dominy Clements

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