18 March 2017

Adolfs Skulte - Symphony No. 5

After a few weeks to gather myself, I am finally in a position to start excitably wittering about new discoveries I made during my 24 hours in Riga. So I ultimately wanted to start with a rather wonderfully hidden gem from the generation that worked almost entirely during the Soviet Era. Adolfs Skulte (1909-2000) stands as a rather significant figure within the Latvian classical tradition, one due to writing a rather prolific body of work, but also due to the sheer weight and magnitude of his orchestral works.

A pupil of Jazep Vitols (1863-1948), Skulte's musical language is an obvious continuation of his tutor, as well as tapping into the influence of composers like Arthur Honnegger or Karol Szymanowski. Skulte's symphonies stand as a significant body of his overall orchestral output, having produced a total of nine symphonies (the curse caught another great). Despite the obvious connection to romanticism, Skulte's music has a richness which keeps it sounding vivid and colourful. The connections to 'tradition' are never the result of 'conservatism' or purely the result of Soviet influences, listening to his music, it is apparent, the connection to the past merely builds Skulte a foundation to grow from.

As Adolfs Skulte was born the generation he was, he was ultimately composing for the majority of his lifetime during the Soviet era. Which for many, especially during the years immediately after the Second World War, meant treading carefully to avoid censorship or harsher consequences. Skulte's first symphony was definitively a work to keep himself in a kinder light, with its 'personable' title for peace. Despite the strengths and weaknesses of the work, it did show Skulte had a wonderful knack for writing 'his' music as well as adapting it enough to allow him to function despite the censorship. This adeptness lead Skulte winning multiple prizes including the U.S.S.R State Prize as well as achieving the title of 'People's Artist of Latvian S.S.R'. Now it can be argued that this was selling out, or just getting cosy with the Soviets. But the reality is, these were hoops composers had to jump through, not necessarily because any slight shift out of line was instant death and suffering for each individual artist, but more if you wanted to work as a composer these were the things you needed to do. It could be argued now with composers working in the free market, are having to sell out or become good promoters just so they can work. There are ultimately harsh realities wherever you are working, and hopefully those sacrifices pay off. In the case of Adolfs Skulte it did.

By 1970, as Skulte had an impeccable record,which meant he was completely free to composer whatever he wanted. This combined with Gorbachev's supposed 'Socialism with a human face', granted many freedoms to artists which ultimately lead to Skulte reaching a truly profound moment within his own music. This 'last' period of the composer shows him really striding with a real swagger. The fifth symphony is the first work of this period, and it really shows him in a fantastic light.

The three movement work, has the connection to traditional symphonic forms, but is extended with a fantastical and beautiful brutality. The opening Lento is calm, slowly biding its time, building, growing, and making profound use of its darkness. The orchestral palette is vast and really shows a composer throwing everything he has now he has the freedom to do so. The gorgeous melodic sweeps in the strings juxtaposed against dark monolithic chords in the brass makes the experience intensive. Parallels to Honnegger are particularly accurate, the similarities between this symphony and Honnegger's Symphonie Liturgique are there, but never in a pastiche manner.

The Allegro con brio flies. There is no other word for it. The sheer energy and drive in the work never really stops. Its a surprise the conductor doesn't get a stitch or repetitive strain from this fly by. However it does end in probably the cheekiest manner you could imagine.

The finale, Lento - Vivo, is rich and powerful. It stands as the largest movement of the work, but could also be seen as two movement rammed together as the conductor noted that the Lento and Vivo should be played without interruption. This second Lento starts with a glorious haze of colour. The build up of the chord is reminiscent of Berg's violin concerto, but in its own manner is equally thick and yummy; like truly masterful hot chocolate. The saxophone solo is haunting and just divine. The build up is intense and just glorious things for the ears to bear witness to. The moment the tubular bell strikes is magnificent and the responding harmonies just stun me. The Vivo starts in a fugal manner, with voices entering one by one, and like the Allegro con brio they fly. Skulte has a magnificent ability at writing fast music, an art which has disappeared in the last century. The finale has a real sensation of a rondo form, with its returning segments and the way the movement elegantly dances between them all is simply masterful. And the recapitulation of the melody at the climax of the movement is as glorious as it is terrifying.

The symphony is simply magnificent, there is no question. The sheer breadth and magnitude within one symphonic work is astounding, let alone the other eight symphonies. This is a composer who simply needs to be heard more. Enjoy the symphony below!

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