The Symphonies of Ķeniņš

ĶENIŅŠ: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6. Canzona Sonata* / *Santa Vižine, vla; Latvian National Symphony Orch.; Guntis Kuzma, cond / Ondine ODE 1354-2

Following on the heels of its release of Tālivaldis Ķeniņš’ Fifth Symphony, Concerto di Camera and Concerto for Piano, Strings & Percussion, Ondine now presents his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies along with his Canzone Sonata for viola and orchestra. As I mentioned in my review of that record in September of last year, Ķeniņš led a hard life during World War II when the Soviets invaded Latvia and he was not reunited with his mother as planned but rather conscripted into the Russian Army (he served his time as an organist). Later, having survived the war, he studied music seriously in Paris before going to live in Canada.

Ķeniņš always claimed to take a “rational view” towards composition, and a bias towards tonality, he clearly used sliding chromatics and other unusual harmonic effects which gave his music a bitonal, harmonically unsettled perspective. Rhythmically and structurally Ķeniņš remained a Latvian at heart. The Fourth Symphony, split into two long movements (12 minutes and 10 minutes respectively), spends most of the first delving into dark recesses of the mind. It is not quite nihilistic but rather edgy and unsettled music; you’re not quite sure where it’s going,  but the journey is obviously a hard and strenuous one. The continuous bitonality and use of harsh wind and brass chords never quite breaks through into outright despair, but neither does it sound as if the journey is going to end happily.

The second movement opens with a strange trumpet solo, also bitonal, which leads into more energetic but equally unsettled emotional terrain. At about the 7:30 mark, however, the music suddenly becomes more animated and, though still bitonal, seems to have a quirky jollity about it. This journey may not end with everyone getting cake and ice cream, but it’s certainly not going to be bleak or nihilistic. Racing chromatic figures played by the brass and winds intertwine. eventually the timpani enters to punctuate things, and we get a crushed chord that goes through a long diminuendo before an unexpectedly quiet ending.

The Sixth Symphony is a single movement lasting 18 minutes, and this one starts in a very somber mood with low clarinet and soft, low trumpet figures. Eventually the music becomes louder, faster and more menacing, with low wind and trombone figures played against sustained edgy wind chords. Considering this music’s harmonic language and (again) sparse, wind-oriented orchestration, it’s amazing how much color and variety of mood Ķeniņš could wring out of his forces.

Despite the interesting musical progression, which goes through several tempi and some unusual changes in orchestration (including the use of cup mutes in the trumpets and some sliding, microtonal figures), Ķeniņš’ music seems to me much more connected with mood than with structure, which somewhat goes against the composer’s stated preference for “rational” composition. Or, at least, that’s the way these performances strike me.

At the 14:04 mark we move from the slow section of the symphony to the faster final section, and here Ķeniņš creates a two-voiced fugue which eventually morphs into a series of counter-figures playing against one another. He later told his biographer, flautist Edgars Kariks, that he thought the sixth was his best symphony. “Quoting Bach has been fruitful – symbolizing the spirit of music itself, as I see it,” he said.

The Canzone Sonata, commissioned by the committee of Australian-Latvian Culture Days (try figuring that one out!) in 1986, is a strongly lyrical work in which the solo viola sounds much like a cello, particularly in the opening section of the work. It is also quite varied in tempo and mood, in fact shifting more quickly here than in his symphonies. Perhaps because the top line was written for a string instrument, which relies on sustained tones, Ķeniņš kept both the melody line and the harmony a bit simpler than usual, but still edgy enough to satisfy those who prefer modern to romantic music. His penchant for sparse orchestral textures continues here as well, and there seems to be a more recognizable sense of structure in this music.

Overall, then, this is a splendid album and one quite valuable to the collector. Ķeniņš is scarcely a familiar or even a well known composer in most parts of the world, but his music tells us that he should be much better known by contemporary audiences.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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