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Jānis IVANOVS (1906-1983)
Symphony No 15 “Symphonia Ipsa” in B-flat minor (1972) [32:11]
Symphony No 16 in E-flat major (1974) [30:30]
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Guntis Kuzma
rec. 2021, Great Guild Concert Hall, Riga
SKANI LMIC126 [62:11]

The Latvian label Skani has done much to promote the music of Jānis Ivanovs, and I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several of his symphonies (review ~ review ~ review ~ review). Without doubt, Ivanovs holds the distinction of being the most significant and prolific Latvian symphonist of the second half of the 20th century, with twenty-one symphonies to his name (Symphony No 21 remained unfinished at his death and was completed and orchestrated by Juris Karlsons). He hailed from the Latgale section of Eastern Latvia that borders Lithuania, Byelorussia and Russia, an area that boasts a varied ethnic mix, from whose folk music he drew inspiration. When the First World War broke out his family fled to Russia, returning when hostilities ended. In 1924 he enrolled at the newly established Latvian Conservatory, studying conducting with Georg Schnéevoigt and composition with Jāzeps Vītols. He himself was a professor of composition there from 1944 until his death in 1983. He also worked as a sound engineer in the 1930s, and for many years was artistic director of Latvian Radio. His music is highly individual, a synthesis of late romanticism, folklore, and impressionism.

These late symphonies date from the early 1970s. No 15 was premiered on October 16 1972 by the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Eri Klas. The Symphony is titled “Symphonia ipsa” (symphony of itself). The high strings at the start of the first movement evoke an icy chill, and as the movement progresses the music becomes desolate and bleak. A Molto allegro follows which has a persistent tread. The slow movement is, without doubt, the emotional heart of the work. Introspective in character, it paints a landscape of stillness and deeply penetrating solitude. The final movement gradually opens out into one of drama and passionate intensity.

Two years later in 1974 Ivanovs composed his Sixteenth Symphony. The work defines a new direction in his music defined by musicologist Mikus Čeže as “portray(ing) a sense of the times during the decline of Leonid Brezhnev”. The first movement registers drama and intensity, with its moments of lyrical surrender. A brief angular allegro precedes an Andante. Pesante which features the wonderful rich string section of the orchestra. The mood is both brooding and contemplative. The finale forges a sturdy tread, all the better for Ivanovs’ impressive and vital orchestration.

The performances are riveting and emotionally charged, both involved and exciting, and complemented by sound that is well engineered. As befits these intriguing and imaginative scores, you’ll be won over by the felicitous razor-sharp precision of the playing, and orchestral colour. The Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under Guntis Kuzma is to be commended.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ David McDade

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