Lovers of the orchestral music, and especially the symphonies, of Latvian composer Jānis Ivanovs will welcome this latest release from the Skani label featuring Symphonies 17 and 18. He composed twenty-one symphonies in all, though No. 21 remained unfinished at his death; it was completed and orchestrated by Juris Karlsons. So far, Skani have issued Symphonies 14 (2 performances), 15, 16 and 20 (2 performances). In 2004 Naxos released a disc of Symphonies 8 and 20, positively reviewed at the time by my colleagues Don Satz and Rob Barnett.
Ivanovs was the most significant and prolific Latvian symphonist of the second half of the 20th century. He was born in Preiļi in 1906, and 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. He also worked as a sound engineer in the 1930s, and for many years was artistic director of Latvian Radio. He died in Riga in 1983.
Both Symphonies see their world premiere release in these 2022 studio recordings. Symphony No. 17, in four movements, dates from 1976. It reveals a “new romanticism” which came to inform his music. The opening movement begins and ends in a climate of calm and reflection, with beautiful transparent textures emitting a honeyed glow of sound. Four minutes in, the music begins to work up a hefty head of steam. The narrative remains agitated and vehement until calmness descends near the end. A brief five minute scherzo-like movement follows before the Adagio, the emotional heart of the Symphony. This glorious movement has a timeless quality, evoking a far-off land of dreams, wistful and melancholic. A boisterous, angular finale brings the work to a close.
A year later in 1977 Ivanovs penned his Eighteenth Symphony, again in four movements. It’s dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the Great October socialist revolution. The work is infused with memories of the two Great Wars, hearkening back to the Symphony No. 5 (1945), which also speaks of war but unfortunately became the victim of Zhdanov’s anti-formalist campaign. The first movement has a serious and solemn demeanour throughout. An energetic scherzo precedes a doleful Andante Tenebroso, described in the notes as an “elegiac requiem”. The long drawn-out lines of melody spell sadness and regret. The fourth movement works on a militaristic formula, grandiose yet with a sense of foreboding.
These are vital and highly engaging performances, registering a powerful impact. Guntis Kuzma has full measure of the character, idiom and contours of these rewarding scores and directs the orchestra in compelling soul-searching performances. The superb audio quality does the music full justice. It’s well-worth giving these symphonies a try.