Janis Ivanovs: Symphonies Nos. 17 & 18

Guntis Kuzma / Latvian National Symphony Orchestra

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Janis Ivanovs: Symphonies Nos. 17 & 18 Review

by James Manheim

Jānis Ivanovs is said to be Latvia's most important composer of the later 20th century, but he has been little known outside that country. The Skani label, a project of Latvia's Music Information Center, would seem to have made a good investment with this release, one of a series devoted to Ivanovs' symphonies by the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Guntis Kuzma; the album showed up on classical best-seller charts in the late summer of 2022. Ivanovs' style is perhaps better experienced than described. It is tonal but in no way conventional and hardly Romantic in flavor. Nor did he indulge in the bombast of Socialist Realism, and indeed, he ran afoul of Stalin's cultural machinery. Composer Margers Zarins, writing in the booklet notes to a 1990s Marco Polo release (one of the few albums devoted to Ivanovs' music in the West before the present group), catches the flavor of his symphonies with the comment that they are "like ancient Greek tragedies, filled with ecstasy and purification." Ivanovs modulates, but only sparingly, preferring to build structures in great arcs from tonally stable material and fill in those arcs with music of increasing density. His slow movements (sample especially the Adagio in the Symphony No. 17) are somber and have great depth and beauty; the outer movements are monumental. Ivanovs might be compared to a Sibelius who lived longer and simplified his style, or perhaps to Alan Hovhaness, but really, his style is his own and ought to be experienced. Kuzma and his players surely know the music better than foreign groups at this time and offer readings of which the composer would have approved.

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