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Tālivaldis ĶENIŅŠ (1919–2008)
Concerto di camera No.1 (1981) [20:28]
Concerto for Piano, Strings and Percussion (1990) [19:22]
Symphony No.1 (1959) [17:59]
Agnese Egliņa (piano)
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Guntis Kuzma, Andris Poga
rec. 2020, Great Guild Hall, Riga, Latvia
ONDINE ODE1350-2 [57:49]

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš was one of Latvia’s most significant composers, whose father was a poet and mother a social activist. He felt inclined to leave the country for Paris after the Soviet occupation. In 1940 his father had been arrested and later deported. His talent flowered at the Paris Conservatoire. His previous unremarkable first steps in music had led him to refer to himself as a “first rate ugly duckling”. Now his renowned teachers were Tony Aubin for composition, theory with Simone Plé-Caussade and analysis with Olivier Messiaen. After graduation, Canada was his next port of call, and here he remained for the rest of his life, for a time teaching in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. Such was the high esteem the Canadians held him, that he had a street named after him in Ottawa. His compositions included eight symphonies, several concertos, and an array of chamber, choral, solo piano and organ works.

The Concerto di camera No. 1 was composed in 1981 and premiered in Toronto at the Latvian Song Festival the same year. The three movements adopt the fast-slow-fast pattern. The first movement opens in a lingering shroud of mystery, but it’s not too long before it gathers momentum. The emotional heart of the work is the central slow movement, clearly influenced by Bartók’s night music. The orchestration is delicate and gossamer-like, and Guntis Kuzma draws some magical sounds from the orchestra. The neoclassically-etched third movement is untiring in its insistence. The piano writing is virtuosic and Agnese Egliņa admirably meets all the requirements.

Almost ten years later the Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra and Percussion was composed and received a Toronto premiere in July 1990. Its composition coincided with a return visit the composer made to Latvia, the first since going into exile. The following May Latvia welcomed independence. There’s much new-found optimism in the music. The colourful orchestration hits a powerful punch, with wood-blocks, chimes, xylophone, cymbal, vibraphone and assorted drums all harnessed into the mix. As for influences I could once again detect Bartók, but Honegger and Stravinsky also make their presence felt. There’s a brush with atonality and some bitonality thrown in for good measure. Once again, it’s the slow movement which draws me in. Its luscious luminosity has a striking effect.

The earliest work here is the Symphony No. 1 from 1959, of which a first performance was given a year later in July 1960. In the first movement, scratch the surface and you’ll hear the harmonic fingerprints of Shostakovich. In the central slow movement the landscape is spacious and the mood relaxed. The finale is a fugato with syncopations, where a trombone declaims an active theme. Episodes of powerful intensity, spiced with the flavour of jazz, alternate with moments of beguiling lyricism. 

These flamboyant and colourful works could have no better advocates than the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under the inspirational conductors Guntis Kuzma and Andris Poga. They play with infectious zeal and are superbly recorded.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Hubert Culot

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