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Jānis IVANOVS (1906-1983)
Piano Concerto (1959) [26:03]
Symphony No. 14 Sinfonia da Camera (1971) [21:52]
Symphony No. 20 (1981) [26:56]
Igor Zhukov (piano)
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Vassily Sinaisky
Latvian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/Tovijs Lifšics
rec. Latvian Radio, 1971-82.
SKANI LMIC035 [74:51]

We hear very little about Latvian composer Jānis Ivanovs. It was often said that the music of Vaughan Williams did not travel beyond the UK or perhaps just beyond England. In fact, that English composer's music has made listening friends and found recordings outside that "Green and Pleasant Land". Ivanovs has a similar potential for geographically wider appreciation.

While opera held no attraction for him Ivanovs was active in many other fields. His symphonies are numerous: 1 Poema (1933); 2 (1937); 3 (1938); 4 Atlantis (1941); 5 (1945); 6 Latgalian (1949); 7 (1953); 8 (1956); 9 (1960); 10 (1963); 11 (1965); 12 Energica (1967); 13 Humana (1969); 14 (1971); 15 Ipsa (1972); 16 (1974); 17 (1976); 18 (1977); 19 (1979); 20 (1981); 21 (1983, unfinished). There are tone poems including Rainbow (1939) and Lacplesis (1957) as well as one concerto each for Violin (1951), Cello (1952), Piano (1959) and three string quartets (1932, 1946, 1961). The Violin Concerto is a stunner but still awaits the sort of international renaissance on record that has been the welcome fate of the Schoeck and Karlowicz concertos.

Over the years Ivanovs may not have made much of a stir outside his Baltic homeland but recordings were made there. These were initially at the hands of Melodiya in LP form and at the time made hardly any splash further afield. A precious few have appeared in ADD transfers, including Alexander Gauk's version of the Seventh Symphony (Brilliant Classics 9146). In the late 1990s up to seven CDs of the orchestral music were triumphantly issued by an heroically isolated British label (review ~ review ~ review). It's just a shame that the Campion series died the death … and whatever happened to their volume 5? In addition Marco Polo and Naxos weighed in with three useful symphony discs.

Some may bewail Ivanovs' neglect on record but at least he completely outstripped his equally brilliant contemporary symphonist 'brother' Adolfs Skulte. Neither Ivanovs nor Skulte have been the subject of major English language studies and this also may have hampered their progress; campaigning musicologists please note. How different their fates might have been had they had a Walter Simmons or a Malcolm MacDonald (see his "Opus Est", Kahn & Averill, 1978) at their disposal. Mark Morris's otherwise superbly provocative "Guide to Twentieth Century Composers" does not even mention them; in fact, apart from Estonia, the Baltic states rate hardly a single sentence.

The Piano Concerto - the earliest work here - is played by the Russian pianist Igor Zhukov who was of Latvian descent. It goes in for strenuously commanding romantic rhetoric. The call-to-arms preludes some torrential and turbulent writing. It is not at all self-effacing. Unsurprisingly, Ivanovs' instrument was the piano so he was in his element. While some spectrally swirling episodes appear (9:00), the first movement's hallmark is haughty defiance and whirlwind flurries of notes. Making play with the four-square defiance of the first movement, Ivanovs spins a folk-lovely romantic Andante moderato as a centrepiece. Its spirit is close to that of Ivanovs' Violin Concerto of eight years previous. The finale is a happy and completely accessible Allegro con brio once again thematically related to the first movement. This fiercely melodious concerto may lack the brilliance of Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto but it would make a good and unblushing companion to that work.

The fairly short three-movement Symphony No.14 Sinfonia da camera is for string orchestra. It has a wintry accent but again melody is the governing element. The emotionally cool first movement carries a message of regret blended with Bach-like grandeur. The style carries over into the middle movement which, like the central movement of the Piano Concerto, opts for tenderly lilting melody (1:10). A solo violin acts as cantor and hortator. The buzzing finale is waspishly athletic but finds time for softer reflections. This work should appeal to anyone who likes the Nystroem Concertos for Strings, Alwyn's Sinfonietta and Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra.

The Symphony No. 20 is his last completed symphony and is in four movements across approaching 27 minutes. The opening Moderato tranquillo is far from tranquil. There is about it a strenuous, even hopeless, desperation that will not let go until a bell tolls out (6:50) with an optimistic and healing resonance. The following Adagio is a construct of Mahlerian despair. This hums with tension which is moderated a little by a Hollywood-style string melody (1:38) and the melancholy acceptance of fate. There is a lightly archaic dignity about the Menuetto - Reminiscenza which parallels the writing of Arnold Rosner and Edmund Rubbra. There are nostalgic relaxations too when the composer seems to look back, a shade tearfully, to fabulous, happy, romantic times. It is no surprise that the energetic Allegro con brio finale is also troubled but this is leavened by some desperately aspirational writing. It struggles, with some success, to rise in Sibelian (Seventh Symphony) magnificence above the tumult but is always beset with thoughts of mortality. Triumph returns momentarily with the cinematic gesture we last heard in the Adagio. At the last a sombre and beautiful but unwarming glow lights the horizon and that bell from the first movement returns. This atmosphere parallels William Alwyn's Fifth Symphony, Hydriotaphia where bells and corteges are part of the symphonic warp and weft of the score.

Death intervened to frustrate Ivanovs' Twenty-First symphony (1983) and this had to be brought to completion by one of the composer's students, Juris Karlsons. It has been recorded, but only on LP.

It's a welcome touch that this beautifully designed disc and case incorporates details from the paintings "Blue Lakes”, "Latgale Symphony” and "White Birches Beyond the Daugava River” by Diāna Īve, the granddaughter of Jānis Ivanovs.

The booklet essay is by composer Imants Zemzaris and you could hardly ask for a more wide-ranging and thorough-going account in the space of twenty pages of this fifty-page booklet. Zemzaris goes into rewarding detail about Ivanovs' music from start to end as well as filling in the blanks around these three works. All in all, this volume in its documentation, book-design, music, performance and recording could hardly be bettered as an emissary for this prolific and undervalued symphonist. Let us keep our fingers crossed for the other symphonies. I hope that priority will be given to issuing recordings of the symphonies that have not as yet put in an appearance on compact disc.

Rob Barnett



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