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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]

At the time of Ādolfs Skulte's birth, his family were living in Kiev, Ukraine, where his father Pēteris had gone in search of work as a construction engineer. By all accounts  Ādolfs and his brothers were raised in a culturally enlightened household, where the arts, literature and music provided fertile soil for his future career as a musician (his brother Bruno (1905-1976) also became a composer). The colourful landscape of Kiev and its environs would later translate into his music. The family returned to Latvia in 1921. Initially earmarked for a career in engineering, Ādolfs changed course and in 1930 entered the composition class of Jāzeps Vītols at the Latvian Conservatory, recently founded in 1919, as one of the first group of homegrown composers to be nurtured there. He graduated in 1936 and, shortly after, became Vītols' assistant. 1940 saw the Soviet occupation of Latvia, when mass deportations of the population to Siberia took place and the country’s short-lived independence was lost. Many musicians fled to the West. Skulte stayed put and over the next years, adopting a pragmatic approach to the Soviet's unreasonable demands, towed the party line. In 1948, at the time of the Zhdanov Doctrine, Skulte remained 'correct', conforming to the prescribed methods of optimism, melody and folk music influences. Nothing stays the same and he did achieve some inner freedom later in the 1970s. In 1991 he witnessed the restoration of his country's independence.

Listening to these two symphonies I cannot but echo the words of Ingrīda Zemzare of the Kremerata Baltica that Skulte's music has 'a fiery sense of orchestral colour'. He himself said 'A score is a painting. A painting made with timbral colours', and that seems to have been his philosophy from the start. In 1934, as a young man in his mid twenties, he penned his first orchestral work 'Viļņi’ (Waves). I listened to it on Youtube and discovered a masterly impressionistic score depicting water, air and light. It exudes myriad hues and evinces a Ravelian confidence and orchestral adeptness. By way of comment, this impressive piece has been released on a Melodiya LP but never seems to have made it to CD - more's the pity.

The artistic freedom which resulted from Gorbachev's supposed 'Socialism with a human face' launched Skulte's 'last period' from which these two three-movement symphonies derive. The opening of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony is tranquil and muted, with the composer creating an atmosphere of portent. You can feel the tension building. When it erupts, a few minutes in, the swirling instrumentation helps to summon energy as the composer ups the rhetoric. Now we get a taste of the dazzling orchestration,  invigorated by some stirring brass writing. The movement ends in peace and calm, luminously etched. Skulte throws everything at the Allegro con brio which follows. It all makes for an exhilarating orchestral spectacle of vigour and Úlan. A contrasting middle section offers some soothing respite before the brutal coruscation returns with a vengeance. The last movement begins with a Lento tagged onto a Vivo (I'm not sure whether Skulte had in mind two movements, but they are linked without a break and tracked together here). Peace and calm characterize the first part and the composer employs a saxophone, an instrument capable of conveying wistfulness and regret. A tolling bell ushers in the fugally-drafted Vivo. It gives the music a forward thrust and momentum, bringing the Symphony to an animated conclusion, where those bells again sound, this time in triumphant manner.

The Ninth was Skulte's farewell to the symphony; he'd reached that hallowed number. After a reticent opening, the first movement glides along with a lilting pulse. The music then becomes more animated and urgent, almost menacing at times.  As in the Fifth, the scoring shows a confident and expert hand. An elegaic slow movement comes next with Skulte's gift for melody more than evident. There's a satisfying sense of reverential nobility. The finale struts confidently along, with percussion and brass offering added potency. Halfway through, Skulte applies the brakes, and the music becomes serene. Then a dignified march leads to the conclusion, which I found rather understated.

These are radio recordings from 1976 (Symphony No. 5) and 1989 (Symphony No. 9) and, considering their age and provenance, sound just fine. What emerges from these valuable recorded documents is a profound love for the music by the players of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under Aleksandrs Viļumanis. This is transmitted into these captivating performances; these scores could have no better advocates.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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