Wednesday 18 November 2020

Born in Latvia, trained in Paris, lived in Canada: introducing Tālivaldis Ķeniņš, a very global 20th century composer

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš Violin Concerto, Percussion Concerto; Eva Bindere, Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Andris Poga; SKANI

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš Violin Concerto, Percussion Concerto; Eva Bindere, Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Andris Poga; SKANI

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Tālivaldis Ķeniņš' music is relatively unknown and this fine disc is a terrific introduction to his complex, technically demanding, neo-Romantic style

I have to confess that until I was sent this disc, the name of the Latvian composer Tālivaldis Ķeniņš was unknown to me. Thanks to the vicissitudes of 20th century politics Ķeniņš had diverse history, trained in both Latvia and Paris, he ended up emigrating to Canada where he spent the final 50 years of his adult life.

This new disc from the Latvian Music Information Centre's label, Skani, presents a portrait of Tālivaldis Ķeniņš with his Violin Concerto from 1974, Concerto for Five Percussionists and Orchestra from 1983,and Beate Voces Tenebrae from 1977, performed by Eva Bindere (violin), Mikus Bāliņš, Elvijs Endelis, Elīna Endzele, Guntars Freibergs, Ernests Mediņš (percussion), Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, conductor Andris Poga.

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš' father, Atis Ķeniņš, was one of the founders of the Latvian Republic in 1918 and his mother was a diplomat, so part of Tālivaldis Ķeniņš' childhood was spent in France. Intentions of studying at the Sorbonne were failed by the war and Tālivaldis Ķeniņš studied in Lativa. His father was deported, for the first time, in 1944, and Tālivaldis Ķeniņš fled Lativa. He studied in Paris with Tony Aubin and Olivier Messiaen, and by 1951 had emigrated to Canada.

Almost a generation older than his famous Estonian colleague, Arvo Pärt, Ķeniņš solved the conundrum of how to live as an artist under Soviet domination by joining the Latvian diaspora (his first job in Canada was as the organist for the Toronto Latvian congregation). But this has meant that his work has rather passed under the radar, though since his centenary in 2018, Ķeniņš and his music have been gaining more recognition in his native country and this new recording should do a lot to intrigue those outside Latvia.

Ķeniņš does not write simple music, there is no stripped down element and whilst the term neo-Romantic might be applied, you could also say that his music is complex, technically demanding, and sonically imaginative. This is the music of someone who developed in the Baltic, acquired the sophisticated techniques of Paris in the 1940s and 1950s, and then ploughed his own furrow, very much away from the mainstream of Western music in the later 1950s and after.

Ķeniņš' Violin Concerto was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for the Canadian violinist Steven Staryk. The composer and the soloist were friends, and it is possible that this friendship led to the commission. Whilst Ķeniņš had written for the violin before, prior to writing the work he studied Russian books of violin technique, and it is certainly a virtuosic and technically demanding work. Critical reaction in Canada was mixed, with one critic referring to 'an old-fashioned melange of Romantic and Neo-Classical patterns and moods ... prominent in its Milhaudish playfulness'. One composer I keep coming back to when listening to Ķeniņš is Henri Dutilleux.

In our post-everything age, this sort of mix of styles matters to us less. It is a complex and tricky work, the dense writing means that the violinist does not always have an easy time and certainly this is not the sort of work where the soloist sets off and is at the forefront all the time. Ķeniņš seems to use a large orchestra, and whilst there is romanticism and there are melodies, these are surrounded by a welter of orchestral colour and texture. It is in five movements, lasting something over 20 minutes but there is also the feeling of a single span of music. You sense that perhaps, there might be balance problems with the piece, but it never sounds that way in this terrific and persuasive performance. Listening to it, you wonder why the work is not better known.

Conductor Andris Poga and the percussionists at the recording session for Tālivaldis Ķeniņš' Concerto for Five Percussionists
Conductor Andris Poga and the percussionists at the recording session for Tālivaldis Ķeniņš' Concerto for Five Percussionists

Ķeniņš wrote his Concerto for Five Percussionists in 1983, but he made extensive use of percussion in a lot of his work. He wrote to his friend, Edgars Kariks, 'I appreciate the extensive opportunities that percussion instruments offer. They provide so much colour. They give my music a dynamic profile...something like an independent objective. They serve as the foundation for all of the dramatic elements in a composition, in an orchestral composition. I think I realised this in my Symphony No. 4, which is actually a concerto for percussion. This is in contradiction to Boulez, who criticised the unsuitable use of percussion. He said that percussion instruments are a cache-misère (‘a cover for a lack of imagination’)...that they hide pitiful, poor music. But I like to use percussion instruments to highlight the dramatic elements in my music. [..] It’s not because it’s applied music. It’s part of my musical feeling'

The concerto came about because the composer had to retire at the age of 65 from the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto (where he had taught for over 30 yearsa), so he was offered a concerto as a going away present. Because the percussion class was exceptional that year, it became a percussion concerto conducted at the premiere by Philip Headlam who has gone on to have a notable career in Europe. It is in five movements, and listening to it, you could think that perhaps it was a symphony rather than a concerto. Ķeniņš uses the percussion as part of the orchestra, bringing colour and movement to the music and adding those dramatic highlights that he talked about. It is quite a busy piece, and must be rather terrific to watch.

Four of the soloists on this disc are from the Latvian percussion ensemble Perpetuum Ritmico, who performed the work in Riga in 2019 with Andris Poga, the conductor on the present recording. I have to confess that I sometimes find percussion concertos difficult to apprehend. Here, perhaps because Ķeniņš  writes symphonically rather than spotlighting the percussion, it seems to be a much more coherent work. Like the violin concerto the work is technically demanding and complex, and full of colour and movement.

The final work on the disc is Beatae Voces Tenebrae from 1977. Written after the death of two close friends, the work is intended as 'a meditation on our attitudes to human frailty'. The link to the two friends means that Ķeniņš includes flashes of motifs by other composers, whilst also weaving in B-A-C-H and the chorale O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid. This might make it seem contrived, but not a bit. Instead, it is a powerful and highly developed piece.

The catalogue is not overburdened with discs of  Ķeniņš' music, though the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra has also recently issued a disc of Ķeniņš' early Symphony No. 1 (1959) plus two concertos on the Ondine label [Amazon]. This new disc is a fine way to get to know a much neglected composer, with a selection of what would seem to be typical works in strong performances. This is music which is crying out to be heard more, and I hope that this disc does something towards making Tālivaldis Ķeniņš name better known.

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (1919-2008) - Violin Concerto (1974)
Tālivaldis Ķeniņš - Percussion Concerto (1983)
Tālivaldis Ķeniņš - Beatae voces tenebrae (1977)
Eva Bindere (violin)
Mikus Bāliņš, Elvijs Endelis, Elīna Endzele, Guntars Freibergs, Ernests Mediņš (percussion)
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra
Andris Poga (conductor)
Recorded at the Great Guild Concert Hall, Riga in 2020
SKANi LMIC/SKANI088 1CD [54:00]

Available from Amazon

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