Wednesday 27 January 2021

Latvian soprano Inga Kalna's debut disc, Der Rosenband, intriguingly combines songs by Richard Strauss with his Latvian contemporaries Jānis Mediņš and Alfrēds Kalniņš

Das Rosenband - Richard Strauss, Jānis Mediņš, Alfrēds Kalniņš; Inga Kalna, Diana Ketler; Skani
Das Rosenband
- Richard Strauss, Jānis Mediņš, Alfrēds Kalniņš; Inga Kalna, Diana Ketler; Skani

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 January 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
In her debut recital, the Latvian soprano interleaves songs by Richard Strauss with those by his Lativian contemporaries

The Latvian soprano Inga Kalna was a name that was new to me, and on this disc from Skani she and pianist Diana Ketler introduce songs by two unfamiliar composers. Their recital Das Rosenband (Kalna's debut disc) features songs by Richard Strauss alongside songs by two of his Latvian contemporaries Jānis Mediņš and Alfrēds Kalniņš.

 Kalna and Ketler perform nine Strauss songs, from Allerseelen and Morgen to Heimliche Aufforderung and Cäcilie, interleaved by songs by Mediņš and Kalniņš; a programme which they first started developing in 2016 and which was recorded in July last year.

Kalna has a lyric soprano voice, clear and bright, her recent roles have included a number of Handel ones alongside Vitellia from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, but there is a strength to Kalna's voice as well as a flexibility and certainly her approach to Strauss has a strong sense of line and firmness of purpose allied to a fine feeling for the shape of the line. This is not the sort of Strauss in which you fall like a luxuriant bath, though there is plenty of beauty of tone, but there is clarity too and a great sense of the words. I have rarely heard Strauss songs sung with such a clarity of diction, and she makes the songs mean something more than simply a lovely line.

From the first notes of Allerseelen you sense that the song is beautifully conceived, and whilst quite steady Kalna and Ketler move towards a climax. Morgen is rather touching, with a sense fragility in the line, In a number of the songs, such as Breit'uber mein Haupt she is quite classical in approach, and often we get beautifully floated top lines. Ecstasy can be some what muted, as in Zueignung, but she and Ketler never stint on climaxes. Ruhe, meine Seele starts off dark (in the piano) and intimate, with a slow build to real intensity, whilst the title song Das Rosenband flows beautifully and Heimliche Aufforderung is wonderfully impulsive. The final song is Cäcilie, a fitting climax to the recital. I think that what I liked about Kalna and Ketler's approach is that these are songs, lieder and whilst Kalna is an opera singer she does not approach the material operatically.

Janis Mediņš
Janis Mediņš
But much of the interest on the disc lies with the songs by Kalna's compatriots. Janis Mediņš (26 years younger than Strauss) is one of the central figures in Latvian musical history. He wrote the first Latvian works in a variety of genres, piano concerto, ballet, piano trio and symphonic poem.  He and Kalniņš are the founders of Latvian opera.  Mediņš wrote over 200 solo songs, and whilst his music is often indebted to Wagner and Richard Strauss, the Russian romances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov are clearly an influence in the songs, as well as the music of Sibelius.

Melodic and engaging, For a moment definitely evokes Tchaikovsky with Kalna bringing out the story-telling element in the song. A lovely engaged performance of Invitation is fast and eager, with the song having a distinct atmosphere. New Love with its big piano part is romantic and almost ecstatic, but the voice evoked hints at Edvard Grieg, whilst The Caress feels like a tender lullaby. Nocturno is remarkably Schumanesque in style and is Mediņš' last song on the disc.

Alfreds Kalniņš was closer to Strauss in age (seven years younger); he grew up in a German-speaking environment, and he has been compared to Grieg in his love of nature and the natural influence on his music. Kalniņš wrote over 250 songs. The Ivy is a relatively short song, but rather touching and with a richly romantic piano postlude, whilst The moaning of the sea is highly atmospheric and reminiscent of Sibelius. The water-lily has the lyrical charm of Tchaikovsky, along with some folk-ish elements, and the lively Goethe setting, Mignon's song almost evokes early Richard Strauss. His final song on the disc is Beyond the hills, beyond the groves, quite a substantial piece and beautifully thoughtful.

Alfreds Kalniņš
Alfreds Kalniņš

Apart from Kalniņš' Goethe setting, all the Lativan songs seem to set Latvian poets and it would be interesting to learn more about the background to them. The nascent Latvian musical culture remains fascinating as you sense the composer's breaking free of the overwhelming Russian influence (the area was part of the Russian Empire until 1917), and whilst Kalniņš did study at St Petersburg Conservatoire, Mediņš seems to have only studied in Riga.

In an interview quoted in the booklet, Kalna talks about the Art Nouveau influence in all these songs, and links it to the remarkable Art Nouveau architecture in Riga. The CD booklet provides background to the composers and the songs, though I would like to have learned more and particularly would have liked dates for the various songs. There are full texts, in the original language (German/Latvian) and English translations.

Kalna and Ketler's performances of the Richard Strauss songs are notable and enjoyable, and for me Kalna's voice is just right for the music though I realise some will want a plusher tone quality. But by interleaving Strauss with his Latvian contemporaries, the two performers have not only introduced us to a new musical world, but tantalised with links and questions about influences. 

A lovely recital.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) - Allerseelen
Jānis Mediņš (1890-1966) - Uz brītiņu (For a moment)
Richard Strauss - Morgen!
Alfrēds Kalniņš (1879-1951)- Efeja vija (The ivy)
Richard Strauss - Breit' über mein Haupt
Jānis Mediņš - Aicinājums (Invitation)
Richard Strauss - Zueignung
Alfrēds Kalniņš - Jūras vaidi (The moaning of the sea)
Richard Strauss - Ruhe, meine Seele!
Alfrēds Kalniņš - Ūdens lilija (The water lily)
Richard Strauss - Das Rosenband
Jānis Mediņš - Jaunā mīla (New love)
Jānis Mediņš - Glāsts (The caress)
Alfrēds Kalniņš - Minjona (Mignon's song)
Richard Strauss - Die Nacht
Jānis Mediņš - Nocturno
Richard Strauss - Heimliche Aufforderung
Alfrēds Kalniņš - Jau aiz kalniem, jau aiz birzēm (Beyond the Hills and Groves)
Richard Strauss - Cäcilie
Inga Kalna (soprano)
Diana Ketler (piano)
Recorded at Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepaja, 12-15 July 2020
SKANI LMIC/SKANI 083 1CD [50.22]

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