Although we are hardly spoilt for choice when it comes to the orchestral music of the Latvian composer Janis Ivanovs, his music has wended its way on to recordings. LPs came courtesy of Melodiya and Latvian Radio. These covered all but the Sinfonia Humana (No. 13). The conductors deployed by Melodiya included Edgars Tons (1917-1967), Leonids Vigners (1906-2001), Eri Klas (1939-2016) and Vassili Sinaisky (b.1947); the latter well known to and loved by Manchester audiences, to Chandos admirers and to those who remember his vividly joyous Moeran Symphony at the 2009 Proms. CD products have been less systematic with a spate of the earlier symphonies from the 1940s and 1950s but a more “gappy” selection from the later years.
To get some idea of his recorded coverage on compact disc have a look at the review of another Skani disc (symphonies 14 and 20) and if you would like to see in detail which symphonies came out on LP then see Mike Herman’s invaluable list of Baltic symphonies. Such a pity that the Campion label’s cycle of the Ivanovs symphonies came to an end after three or four issues in the early 2000s.
Here are two four-movement symphonies, products of the early 1970s. The music is patently seriously-intentioned and each chalks up just over thirty minutes. The Skani notes assure us that Ivanovs was a professor at the Latvian Academy of Music. Ivanovs worked as a sound engineer, later as the artistic director of Latvian Radio (1944–1961). It should be noted that Ivanovs was in the conducting class of Georg Schnéevoigt (famed for his pioneering recording of the Sibelius Sixth Symphony) in 1931 and Jāzeps Vītols’ composition class in 1933.
Ivanovs’ music evolved over the years from nationalist romanticism to a sturdier expressive state. It is tonal-melodic and presents no difficulty to the moderately hardy, exploratory ear. Symphonia Ipsa (‘Symphony of Itself’) breathes the same oxygen-rich air as Simpson and Hindemith with additive rarefied Sibelian overtones.
These two symphonies are said to mark the beginning of a series of late scores which reflect the political atmosphere “during the decline of Leonid Brezhnev”.
The first movement of No. 15 is grave and bleakly lyrical and that carries over to the more urgent second movement (Molto Allegro). The Molto Andante (III) gives way to a pounding pressurised Moderato, Allegro. In fact, ‘Moderato’, ‘Molto’ and ‘Allegro’ are common markings across the four movements.
The Sixteenth Symphony from 1974 opens Moderato, progressing to Allegro Moderato. It is piercing and poignant music that seems to stab into the silence. It is a shade less sombre than the Fifteenth but equally grave. Its celebrations meet anxiety and tension. The second movement (Allegro) might remind you of a Bernard Herrmann film chase with the music taking to its heels into a lively cheerfulness but this lighter sentiment is never unmixed. The Andante Pesante communicates to the listener as a machine-like step-up generator of anxiety. The sturdy finale (Allegro Moderato) is not short on forward motion.
The nicely recorded and well documented disc looks likely (all auguries remaining aligned) to be followed up by Skani within a few years. The next CD will include symphonies 17 and 18 which have not previously had a modern outing.
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. 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.
Edgy, angst-ridden, occasionally a little sinister and often enthralling, the Latvian Janis Ivanovs's soundworld in these symphonies is not a million miles away from that of his contemporary Shostakovich. Well worthexploring
BBC Music Magazine
Time was that the fabled name of Jānis Ivanovs (1906 83) was uttered, if at all, only after slightly less legendary figures such as Havergal Brian, Nikolay Myaskovsky and the two Al(l)ans – Hovhaness and Pettersson – habitual symphonists with dozens of creations to their name, hardly any of which were available to hear. Over time, their symphonies have – with, I think, the exception only of Hovhaness – been recorded and their output come into sharper focus; except for Ivanovs.
With 21 completed symphonies, Ivanovs was neither the most prolific nor the least (Leif Segerstam has long since eclipsed all of them, albeit only numerically). All 21 have been recorded, issued by Campion Cameo (eg 9/99) or Marco Polo (2/97), but even with the advocacy of Vassily Sinaisky and Dmitry Yablonsky the works did not make a great impression. Time, then, for a reappraisal and modern recordings, which is what the Latvian label Skani began doing in 2015, releasing the epic, wartime Fifth (7/18) and the chamber-symphonic Fourteenth (1971) – twice, in different performances (LMIC035 and 068).
Lovers of late Romantic Russian and Soviet-era repertoire will readily warm to these works here even if Ivanovs’s style lacks the passion of Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich. There are curious stylistic resonances in both works of other composers – Leifs, of all people, in the heavy-footed Scherzo of No 15 (1972, curiously subtitled a ‘symphony of itself’), even Britten in some of the orchestral colouring, Einar Englund early in No 16 (1974), Daniel Jones later on – but these are fleeting. Both symphonies are lovingly rendered by the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra but I find the rhythmic element in both symphonies stodgy and earthbound, not mitigated by Guntis Kuzma’s over-reverential interpretations. Sinaisky certainly brought more excitement to this music even if he could not disguise its expressive limitations, but these newcomers win on performance and recording quality.
I’d never heard any of the 21 symphonies by Latvian composer Jānis Ivanovs (1906-1983) before listening to the two on this CD, each lasting about half an hour, both filled with dark sonorities, propulsive energy and clamorous dissonances.
Violence and disaster dominate Ivanovs’ Symphony No.15 in B-flat Minor (1972), subtitled “Symphonia Ipsa.” In the opening Moderato, quiet, tentative apprehension is suddenly shattered by brutal explosions. Heated struggle ensues in the Molto allegro’s agitated, snarling rhythms and desperate pleading. The grim, mournful Molto andante (Adagio) conjures, for me, a desolate battlefield strewn with bodies; brief, snide, sardonic phrases seemingly comment on the absurd futility of the preceding bloodshed. Nevertheless, martial mayhem returns in the Moderato. Allegro with cacophonous fanfares and pounding percussion before the symphony ends in a slow, ghostly procession.
Restless, fluctuating moods pervade Ivanovs’ Symphony No.16 in E-flat Major (1974), perhaps memorializing the victims of No.15. In the Moderato. Allegro moderato, gloomy, throbbing despair, sinister foreboding and dissonant shrieks are intermittently relieved by unexpected, hymn-like concordances and even touches of Sibelius. The Allegro busily churns with mechanized rhythms leading to the distressed Andante. Pesante. Here, dispirited resignation turns into anger and determined resistance until a gentle bassoon solo intones consolation. The Allegro moderato drives relentlessly to a strident triumphal chorale, ending in a simple major chord, the first happy moment on this CD.
Powerful music powerfully performed by conductor Guntis Kuzma and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra.
The recent release two of Ivanovs’s latter symphonies by Skani is a very promising publication. Ivanovs, like many composers who lived in the former Soviet Union, has been neglected by Western audiences during and after his lifetime. Ultimately this is a travesty as so much wonderful work exists — and stereotypes of a nation should never be a barrier to hearing great art.
The turn symphonies show the composer entering his latter period and listening to them you do have a feeling of listening to a master at work. Guntis Kuzma and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra play the symphonies will real zest and zeal — an almost tangible pride in their great symphonist.
Since my first encounter with Ivanovs I have been in love with the work, and I simply cannot encourage readers to get this CD or any CD of Ivanovs’s music. Master music, beautiful played, what’s not to love?