The Music of Tālivaldis Ķeniņš

cover ODE 1350-2

ĶENIŅŠ: Concerto di Camera No. 1.1,2 Concerto for Piano, Strings & Percussion.2,3 Symphony No. 1 4 / 1Tommaso Pratola, fl; Mārtiņš Circensis, cl; 2Agnese Egliņa, pno; 3Edgars Sansons, perc; Latvian National Symphony Orch.; Guntis Kuzma, 4Andris Poga, cond / Ondine ODE 1350-2

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (1919-2008) was a Latvian-born composer trained in France who moved to Canada. He led a difficult life during the war, like so many fleeing persecution during World War II, but in his case it was the Soviets and not the Nazis who invaded his home country. Conscripted into the military, he was lucky enough to have spent the war years working as an organist and clerk rather than on the front lines. Despite studying composition with Tony Aubin and musical analysis with Olivier Messiaen after the war, Ķeniņš developed a somewhat neo-Romantic style, but one in which he constructed his music with “the utmost logic and rationality. A laconic style of expression became his motto, and at his core he remained a Latvian composer and not a French composer.”

Despite this “rational” approach, Ķeniņš poured his own personal feelings and emotions into his music. He was primarily a champion of chamber music, which he considered to be the purest form of art, second being concerti. Thus it is fitting that this CD opens with two different concerti.

The Concerto di Camera No. 1 (1981) opens very quietly, with a low pedal point followed by piano with the flute and clarinet playing ambiguous melodic lines against an equally ambiguous, albeit mostly tonal, harmonic background. This continues for a while with the strings coming in softly at first, but then taking over for a brusque passage in which they double the tempo. Neo-Romantic this music may be, but to me it sounds like a cross between Milhaud and Stravinsky with a Latvian “accent.”

There is nothing cheap or extraneous in Ķeniņš’ music. It is tightly, even rigorously constructed, with the musical ideas flowing so naturally that one has a hard time believing that they were rigorously composed and not just the result of white-heat inspiration. By and large, this particular piece seems to always be in a state of bitonality, which in itself is a refutation of the “neo-Romantic” label, but I am going by what is in the liner notes.

To some extent, too, this music has an inner sadness and delicacy which reminded me very much of Weinberg’s music, but whereas Weinberg is now celebrated worldwide as a major composer, poor Ķeniņš is still relegated to the shadows. Very little of his music exists even on YouTube: the Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3, The Quintet for Piano & Winds and the Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5, all performed by Canadian musicians. (There are excerpts from other works by him on YouTube, but excerpts only.)  Considering how inordinately proud the Canadians often are of even their lesser composers, I’m rather surprised that Ķeniņš hasn’t had a great deal more exposure.

Returning to the Concerto di Camera, the third movement is the liveliest and most outgoing but, again like Weinberg, it has those odd moments of quietude and reflection, and even at its peppiest the music remains in a minor mode and does not really sound celebratory. All of this has the effect on the listener of an emotional undercurrent being held under wraps, of feelings wanting to come to the surface that the intellect keeps telling to quiet down and behave themselves. Because of all these qualities, I find Ķeniņš’ music both fascinating and rewarding.

The piano and percussion concerto (1990) opens with a drum whack, followed by the pianist playing a moto perpetuo of swirling figures that, while excellently constructed, seem to be caught up in a web from which there is no escape. But the winds, supported by woodblocks from the percussionist, break up this musical knot and move things forward in a series of brilliant bitonal and occasionally atonal figures. The Stravinskian reference is even stronger here. Suddenly, at the three-minute mark, this “Molto vivace” suddenly melts into an “Adagio” for the strings in which no piano or percussion is heard at first, and when the piano re-enters it is playing a simple melodic figure with ambiguous but clearly tonal harmonies supporting it. A few Messiaen-like chords are tossed in for color; then, as the pianist continues, the lower strings and percussion re-enter the picture, playing a theme of their own while supporting the pianist.

By now, the reader should realize that, although Ķeniņš’ music is very rigorously constructed, it is by no means predictable or even very easy to describe. He had his own language and syntax, and it is to his eternal credit that he did not repeat devices, motifs or themes. Every composition, for him, was a new challenge, approached with both a feeling of exploration and infinite care in its construction. When I say that his music is “logical,” I do not mean to imply that it is not surprising or interesting, because it is. I don’t think that Ķeniņš always knew where he was going, but when he got there he made sure that all the T’s were crossed and all the I’s were dotted.

After the opening of this concerto, in fact, Ķeniņš keeps the listener glued to the music in order to hear the varied ways in which he uses the percussionist. Vibes, xylophone, woodblocks and other instruments make up his part; Ķeniņš does not rely on shocking, loud drum explosions alone. He was a meticulous craftsman, and creating color was as important to his music as creating lines, counter-lines and interesting harmonic movement. Every facet of his music contributed to the whole; nothing could really be isolated and point to as a salient feature without the surrounding material. His music may flow like a river, but that river has white water and bumps in it that shock and surprise one.

The Symphony No. 1 is, perhaps, the most closely related to Weinberg in style, with its slow second movement being the most tonal and accessible piece on the entire album. And, much to my surprise, the third movement has strong syncopations that lean a bit in the direction of jazz—though, again, with a slow middle section in which Ķeniņš uses unusual counter-movement among the strings to set up a harmonically ambiguous interlude before the winds take over and up the tempo once again.

This is a fascinating release, and one which you will most certainly replay to catch all of the subtleties in Ķeniņš’ music.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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