IVANOVS: Symphonies: No. 5; No. 12, “Sinfonia Energica.”

by Walter Simmons

IVANOVS:  Symphonies:  No. 5; No. 12, “Sinfonia Energica.”  Dmitry Yablonsky conducting the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra.  MARCO POLO 8.223332 [DDD]; 66:13.  Produced by Victor and Marina A. Ledin.

It seems to me that the “CD revolution” and Fanfare were made for each other.  While the past twelve years or so have witnessed thorough recorded investigations of the outputs of dozens of hitherto obscure composers, Fanfare has provided a forum from which to announce such discoveries, as well as providing important related information and assessments.  So when the mass media print articles about the putative “death” of classical music, or, at least, of the American audience for classical music (as they do fairly often these days), my response is that they’re looking in the wrong places.  The symphony orchestra as a municipal institution that performs in the presence of a large audience may be dying, an outmoded vestige of an obsolete demographic phenomenon.  But the motivated classical music explorer has never had so much to choose from.  Even within my own circumscribed area of professional interest–music of the past hundred years or so–there is more repertoire available on recordings than I can ever hope to absorb.

The foregoing reflection is prompted by this new installment in Marco Polo’s survey of the 21 symphonies of Janis Ivanovs (1906-1983), Latvia’s foremost symphonic composer (who would have ever thought . . .?).  I do not pretend to be exhaustively knowledgable about Ivanovs; my familiarity with his music is limited to casual acquaintance with a few of his works through the international “tape underground.”  But to fellow Latvian Margers Zarins, “Janis Ivanovs is like thunder and lightning cleansing the air with his Luciferic sounds.  His symphonies are like ancient Greek tragedies, filled with ecstasy and purification.”  To focus him into perspective, Ivanovs was a contemporary of such figures as Poland’s Bacewicz, Slovakia’s Suchon, the Czechs’ Kabelac,  and the Soviet Shostakovich.

Ivanovs is represented here by two very different symphonies, composed a little more than two decades apart.  The Symphony No. 5 was completed in 1945, just after the end of World War II.  It is an epic work,  nearly three-quarters of an hour in duration, somewhat reminiscent in style and attitude of Eugen Suchon’s mighty cantata, Psalm of the Carpathian Land (although Ivanonvs’ Fifth does not include a chorus).  Both proclaim a mournful, soulful nobility through strong, aggressive gestures, and a post-romantic orchestral style.  However, Ivanovs’ actual musical language does not resemble Suchon’s, nor, to my ears, that of any other composer. The first two movements are the most compelling, with a couple of strongly characterized melodies that insinuate themselves into one’s attention.  However, Ivanovs’ default weakness seems to be a generically gray harmonic language, which causes one’s concentration to flag during the third and fourth movements.

The Symphony No. 12, “Sinfonia Energica,” dates from 1967 and, at half the duration of the Fifth, reveals much more concentration of activity, as well as a harsher harmonic language, perhaps a bit like Prokofiev at his most deliberately abrasive. Unfortunately, however, the music passes by with virtually nothing of notable interest. The characters of the four movements are barely distinguishable from each other, the thematic material is consistently uninteresting, the expressive level is more or less static, so that there is little sense of progression from the pugnacity of the opening to the militaristic insistence of the finale.

Not helping matters are the surprisingly uninspired performances by the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra.  One would think that such a group would be somewhat familiar with this music and enthusiastic about presenting one of their nation’s leading composers to the larger musical world, under the direction of a young native talent.  But their tired, indifferent readings only contribute to the sense of slogging through page after page of gray harmonies and opaque textures.

I approached this disc with considerable curiosity and interest, and I expect that those listeners with an insatiable appetite for composers who have returned repeatedly to the symphonic medium as a vehicle for their more ambitious efforts will be similarly curious.  But this disc cannot be described as heralding the appearance of an auspicious compositional voice.