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Jānis IVANOVS (1906-1983)
Symphony No 15 “Symphonia Ipsa” in B-flat minor (1972) [31:41]
Symphony No 16 in E-flat major (1974) [30:30]
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Guntis Kuzma
rec. 2021 Great Guild Concert Hall, Riga
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
SKANI 126 [62:11]

A lot of the music written in the latter part of the Soviet era has been forgotten as though banished along with the statues of Lenin and Marx. There does now seem to be a small revival of interest in this music, which often took more traditional musical paths, due to the political demands of the Party, than was the case for Western composers after the Second World War.

Such is the case with the Latvian composer, Jānis Ivanovs. An almost exact contemporary of Shostakovich, he, too, suffered the vicissitudes of the Soviet regime, including condemnation by the notorious Zhdanov decree of 1948. Unlike many other Soviet composers, Ivanovs only temporarily retreated into the bland world of the state-required style of Socialist Realism and in his later works found his own distinctive, if still conservative, voice. The two works on this recording date from the 1970s and belong to this late period. They are true symphonies in the traditional sense, continuing a line from such audible influences as Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Nielsen. The composer they reminded me of most, however, is Prokofiev. These two symphonies could easily follow on from the latter’s seventh symphony even if the Latvian lacks Prokofiev’s puckish humour.

Which is another way of saying that these are very serious works. I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more local colour to them by way of nods to Latvian folk music, but Ivanovs compensates with a taste for a big romantic flourish. I mentioned Sibelius earlier and it is the early orchestral works of the Finn that come to mind. Every so often the dense symphonic logic will clear to offer a bracing vista of the Baltic. The fifteenth opens with a delicate sequence that reminded me of dawn over that northern sea. The slow movement of the same symphony, at its climax, opens up onto a similar landscape to thrilling effect before receding to the same mood of pale dawn with which the work commenced. The lamenting woodwind here provide one of the few moments when I heard any similarity to the music of his more illustrious peer, Shostakovich. Both symphonies are full of such moments of lament, held together with a tight grip on symphonic structure.

One critic, Mikus Čeže, has suggested that the fifteenth is expressive of the decline experienced by the Soviet state during the Brezhnev era. I have no way of telling whether that is what the composer had in mind but that work and its successor are both highly evocative of that time in history. Inevitably, they are melancholic in tone but in a way that is expressive of human suffering rather than faceless grey crumbling structures. This is a view of the death throes of Russian communism from the inside. As a consequence, I found myself responding to Ivanovs as a Soviet as much as a Latvian composer. I expect this will wound the national pride of Latvians! But they have a lot to be proud of in Ivanovs’ music.

Of the two works, I was more impressed by the 16th. The last two movements achieve a mournful lyricism in their long-limbed melodies, which is rather arresting. The two symphonies are very similar in style and I feel that Ivanovs had really found his way into it by the time he came to write the later work. His last completed symphony, No 20, demonstrates, in my opinion, his full mastery of this style. The 16th opens with music that has a distinct tang of Janáček about it and gradually explores the dramatic potential of this opening passage without ever losing its lyrical character. What might very loosely be called a second subject group has an almost Elgarian nobility to it. I am tempted to see both these lyrical passages as expressive of the endurance of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The brief scherzo that follows I found a little blustery and over busy to very little end result. I suspect it would have benefited from tighter articulation of its many rhythmical figures to generate more momentum.

The slow movement opens with an impassioned melody for strings that had me thinking of Weinberg. It proceeds through slow climbing, sighing figures underpinned by funereal brass and is the best thing in either symphony. This is followed by a fragile, bleached-out theme for high-lying violins that wanders into a furious dissonant trombone-dominated climax. The climbing passage now returns, louder and with a greater sense of yearning as though it were like a plant trying to grow out of the gloom toward the light. If you enjoy the slow movements of the first two Sibelius symphonies then this is music to be heard. It is splendid stuff. The finale opens in bluster mode but quickly tension is generated by the struggle between this and broader melodic material derived from earlier parts of the symphony. This latter music wins out to produce a surprisingly calm and grand coda.

Ivanovs is not immune to over-earnest passage work as he follows through the symphonic logic of the music and it is this that separates him from the very top rank of composers. Another composer who, somewhat strangely, kept coming to mind as I listened to these symphonies is Arnold Bax. I don’t think anyone will claim Bax as a first tier composer but, like Ivanovs, this doesn’t mean his music isn’t extremely enjoyable.

There is an entertainingly pugilistic liner note in somewhat fruity language, which I appreciated in finding my way into Ivanovs’ sound world. The author, Armands Znotinš, doesn’t pull any punches in supporting his man and it is nice to see such enthusiastic advocacy. Do I think these Ivanovs symphonies are the great forgotten masterpieces of the late twentieth century, as he claims? Sadly no, but they do fill an important gap in the musical history of the period.

The Latvian National Symphony Orchestra play with real command of the style and the recording is able to cope with the big expansive moments with ease, essential if this music is to make its proper impact. I wish they would dig in a bit more in such passages but that is to quibble with what amounts to an admirable reference recording of these overlooked pieces. Anyone interested in this repertoire need not hesitate.

SKANI, a government backed record label, promise a recording of symphonies Nos 17 and 18 and I very much hope I get the chance to review them for these pages.

David McDade

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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