30 September 2016

Osvaldas Balakauskas - Symphony No. 1

Today I wanted to go over a wonderful recording I recently came across of Osvaldas Balakauskas's Symphony No. 1. For those of you unfamiliar with his work Balakauskas is one of the most significant and crucial figures for Lithuanian music. In 1964-69 Balakauskas was studying in Kiev Boris Lyatoshinsky (1895-1967) (or Lyatoshynsky, depending on your preferred spelling). As the majority of his cumulative years as a composer were away from Lithuania, the knowledge he bought back with him would have been enough to secure his significance; particularly as during that time travel and exchange of information was still slow. Thanks to the cultural thaw under the years of Kruschev, information from Western Europe was seeping through into the Iron Curtain, but individuals needs to search intensively to find it. For Balakauskas being in Kiev allowed him to gain access to the works of Anton Webern, Olivier Messiaen, Iannis Xenakis,and Pierre Boulez; composers who would have a profound influence on his work.

Upon Balakauskas's return to Lithuania in 1972 he stood out as a singularity having not gone through the same 'rites of passage' as his contemporaries like Bronius Kutavicius or Feliksas Bajoras. But he was eager to continue striving forward delving deeper into serial technique crafting into something uniquely his. It must be pointed out here, that even though many Lithuanian composers from Benjaminas Gorbulskis to Vytautas Barkaukas, but it never really sunk in as a significant trend; unlike Britain, France, Germany, or America where the affects of serialism still ring out amongst composers. The sheer fact Balakauskas was delving into serialism so deeply is curious considering his surroundings. Then to realise he managed to do something only really matched by Peter Schat (1935-2003) by creating a serial-logic that adds a whole new interpretation of it.

But anyways back to the symphony. Balakauskas's first symphony was written in 1973, being one of the largest pieces he wrote upon his return to Lithuania. The symphony is a 24 minute beast for full orchestra and is fantastically intense to listen to. The symphony shows a radical young composer screaming, desperate to be heard. The opening flourishes and jagged edges dance their way around the orchestra, never wanting to settle down. The hard edges of the harmonies combined with the angular bouncing of the melody, despite their intensity, draw the listener deep into the fray. Moments of calm appear, but have an unsettling edge to them, a sensation similar to the eye of a storm. The angst slowly gathers momentum again, building into extremely powerful and tense moments. The contrapuntal violence between the lower brass and the high woodwinds makes for an intensive crossfire. The finale of the movement is extremely strong and potent, just a magnificent beast really before fading away to nothing.

The second movement is dark and lilts stealthily around. The passing melodic lines add to the mystery. A really fascinating movement which never truly reveals itself, just draws you deeper and deeper while it steadily and patiently gathers itself. The vaguely cyclic nature of the movement adds to the hypnotism, despite the intense climaxes that are reached, you are still lulled into a false sense of security. 

The finale movement builds with an extremely energetic fugue. The finale is bombastic and full of beans. The rhythmic intensity is always present, even at points of supposed calm. The sensation of drive and energy is unmatched really. The dense harmonies are crafted superbly, producing magnificent sonorities despite the complexity of the harmonic language. This combined with the magnificent rhythmic craft, produces an elegant work indeed. A truly underappreciated gem, which needs to be heard more. 

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