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Tālivaldis ĶENIŅŠ (1919-2008)
Symphony No 4 (1972) [23:16]
Symphony No 6 “Sinfonia ad Fugam” (1978) [18:02]
Canzona Sonata (1986) [11:22]
Santa Vižine (viola), Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Guntis Kuzma
rec. 19-23 January 2021, Great Guild Hall, Riga, Latvia
ONDINE ODE1354-2 [52:40]

It seems that Ķeniņš' music is now being considered with renewed interest since this release is the third one to have come my way recently. Does it signal the beginning of a complete recording of his symphonies and miscellaneous orchestral works? I really do not know but I do keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

The Symphony No 4 is in two parts and scored for a chamber orchestra consisting of single winds and brass and of strings in two parts without double basses and, most importantly, a fairly busy percussion section. It was first performed in Köln - apparently to the composer's dismay. That performance also seems to have been sabotaged, since the percussion parts had disappeared before the performance, thus the composer spent the night reconstructing them in his hotel room. Fortunately, the symphony was played again in 1974 by the Belgian Radio Chamber Orchestra under Fernand Terby in New York, Hamilton and Toronto. A few years later the piece achieved its first recordings and thus became fairly well known - in Canada, at least. It opens in a ritualistic, mysterious mood vividly suggested by slow, bass drum-beats over a quiet string cluster. The music progressively opens and eventually reaches a climax with dissonant chords and a mighty tam-tam stroke launching the molto animato section of considerable energy but, near the end of the first part, things change drastically, as the composer instructs his players to play some microtones which create an eerie atmosphere to end the first part. The second part, too, is not without its surprises, for after a short while, the eerie ending of the first part is briefly restated then followed by an almost weightless, suspended section in turn followed by what the present annotator Orests Silabriedis rightly describes as a “total but precisely organised chaos” leading into the very end of the piece in which everyone but the bass drum player stops playing. The end is thus left hanging in the air, unresolved.

Ķeniņš has always expressed his love of and admiration for Bach's music and this is quite often reflected in his own brilliant and assured fugal writing. At first, when reading the insert notes before listening to the music (never do this!), I feared that the music of the Symphony No 6 subtitled Sinfonia ad Fugam would be some sort of bluntly academic homage to JSB. Of course, the music is decidedly contrapuntal (much of his music actually is, in any case), but displays a remarkably fresh invention and imagination. The symphony is in one single movement although divided into four clearly delineated sections roughly corresponding to the four movements of a traditional symphony, albeit a fairly compact one. The opening section begins from the depths of the orchestra in a fairly restrained mood but the music gradually grows out of the mist (“the sunken cathedral slowly rises”, says Silabriedis), an apt phrase to describe the slowly mounting tension at work in the first section. The tension is then dispelled by the following prestissimo section, the symphony's scherzo in all but name, characterised by a formidable energy. It then gives way to the slow section of the symphony in which string players are briefly requested to hum, choosing any of the pitches they are playing. The slow section is the emotional heart of the symphony, deeply moving in its apparent simplicity. The final section opens as if it was to be a massive, assertive fugue of sorts, but – again – not quite so because after reaching an imposing climax the music progressively recedes to where it came from, thus achieving full circle.

By comparison, the Canzona Sonata for viola and string orchestra is simpler but still quite demanding of the soloist. The viola's autumnal tone lends a delightfully nostalgic hue to this lovely short piece which – for all its straightforwardness – displays Ķeniņš' hallmarks that one has come to admire in his most substantial works - most remarkably of all, his unforced contrapuntal mastery.

I cannot but repeat my earlier comments when reviewing what may be the first instalment of Ondine's survey of Ķeniņš' symphonic output: impeccable performances in very fine, natural sound by musicians who clearly believe in the music. One can but hope that more is to come soon.

Hubert Culot

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