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Ādolfs SKULTE (1909-2000)
Symphony No. 5 (1974) [32:51]
Symphony No. 9 (1987) [37:30]
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Aleksandrs Viļumanis
rec. Latvian Radio recordings, 1976 (5); 1989 (9)
SKANI LMIC021 [70:11]

Symphonist Adolfs Skulte was born in Kiev in the Ukraine to a Latvian father. The family moved to Latvia during Adolfs' childhood. He was a student of composition professor Jāzeps Vitols (review ~ review). At the Latvian Conservatory he came to head the composition department and his own students included the great names of Latvian music: Grinups, Kalnins and Kalsons. While prodigiously productive in other formats I should mention that he wrote nine symphonies: 1 (1954), 2 Ave Sol (1959), 3 Cosmic (1963), 4 Youth (1965), 5 (1974), 6 (1976), 7 Protect Nature (1981), 8 (1984) and 9 (1987). Adolfs' elder brother Bruno was also a noteworthy composer.

It is worth bearing in mind that it was only in the 1930s that Skulte's generation first heard the orchestral works of Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Stravinsky,
Prokofiev, Honegger and Respighi. Even then scores were almost impossible to source and discoveries were made by ear via distant radio broadcasts. In 1934 Skulte completed his first orchestral work, the tone poem Viļņi (“Waves”). As the note-writer for this disc observes of this very attractive work: "An entire group of colourful instruments – harp, piano, celesta – are invited to conjure up the sensation of water, air, and light ... a Ravel-like melodic sensuousness". Similar moments can be found at the start of David Diamond's Fourth Symphony and in the Ravel Introduction and Allegro. Waves is well worth seeking out. Perhaps Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will open one of her CBSO concert programmes with this very fine work.

In this connection, it's worth mentioning Skulte's words: “A score is a painting. A painting made with timbral colors.” He associated with Latvian painters (Jānis Pauļuks, Valdis Kalnroze and Rūdolfs Pinnis) and was sympathetic to their worlds. He could not be a complete aesthete - can any composer? Skulte had to live in the real world and it comes as no surprise to find that his Third Symphony, Kosmiskā (Cosmic, 1963) hymns the achievements of Soviet astronauts and there are patriotic cantatas dotted here and there in his worklist.

The Fifth (1974) and Sixth (1976) symphonies are thematically associated. The Fifth is in four movements with the last two occupying a single track on this disc. The opening Lento is at first subdued and haunted. This atmosphere is blown to the winds at 2:59 and 4:20 with great surges strongly figuring flute and harp. The effect is similar to the luxuriously dashing green-sea moments in the second movement of Moeran's G minor Symphony. This irresistible onward rush smacks of Ropartz in his last symphony and Bax in his Sixth. The movement then picks up a martial tone with echoes of what may be recognised as Walton 1 and Shostakovich's Leningrad. Those heaven-scorching trumpets at 9:12 are memorable as is the alluring tapestry of sound at 10:12. The movement ends in a honeyed hum.

The central Allegro con brio is an opulently scored and invigorating onslaught. It combines stormy writing with sombre beauty and a stamping and stomping dynamic exuberance. The following Lento is dominated by an expressively mournful, prominent and lengthy saxophone solo. The allusion is perhaps confirmed by the resonantly dead tolling of a bell. This bumps straight into a brusquely glittering Vivo which has some fugal elements but these manage to escape any charge of academic dullness. This finale makes for a richly active canvas in which rushing music, great joy and dance tip and lurch with delight. The levity is swept aside by imposing music that heaves and cries out in a manner familiar from the conflict carried by Vaughan Williams' Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Tragedy is now in the ascendant and the deathly bell returns. A precipitate falling away to chamber textures, with strings foremost, ends the work in glowing silvery music.

Skulte's last symphony, the three-movement Ninth, has about it a valedictory atmosphere (especially in the finale). On the disc it follows the Fifth after too short a silence. Again, the start is quiet but soon a galloping figure enters with trumpets excitingly echoing the horns. There's some very impressive and assertive horn fanfare work in this movement (3:09, 8:47). It carries regal weight and an unhurried majesty. After boisterous writing reminiscent of Eduard Tubin's Fourth Symphony Skulte finds a remarkable slow-rocking lyrical power (6:40) which, after piling triumph, heroism, tragedy high, ends in the brooding suggestion of a funeral march.

The Largamente finds a sweetly rocking calm and a dignified approach to melancholy. This is not keening abandon but an anthem-like approach with long aspiring lines carried by violins and violas.

The Allegro giocoso finale starts out joyously with a curious Iberian redolence. After pages of turmoil a more placid long march is launched (4:41). This gravitates most naturally towards a breathing motif with complementary tones that are both fragile and vulnerable. A sense of falling away into the march of time arises. Then, with complete ineluctable integrity, comes the end - no circuses, no glamour.

The extended liner essay is by composer Imants Zemzaris.

This disc brings to the wider world two seriously resolute symphonies in better than serviceable recordings. Although hardly the last word in luxury sound they are vivid carriers of Skulte's message. Let's hope that the good people at the Latvian Music Information Centre will be able to find resources for another disc pairing two more of the Skulte symphonies with the tone-poem Waves.

Rob Barnett



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