24 March 2017

Santa Ratniece - Piano Concerto

Another week has passed and I have managed to absorb more Latvian music. This time I am looking at something far more recent. Its not very often you hear a piece and are simply dumbfounded by it, this ultimately becomes rarer the longer you work within contemporary music; the more you know the harder it is to be surprised. But this being said, today's composer is definitely a joyous surprise.

Born in 1977, Santa Ratniece, like many Latvians, worked her way through the Jazep Vitols Music Academy in Riga. After her studies there, she studied with David Rowland in Holland, then finally studying with Helena Tulve in Tallinn. She has ultimately done what is now very common practice within the Baltic, internationalising yourself by travelling to where you want to grow and to be able to throw yourself deep into the world of other composers and musics. Already Santa has seen some wonderful international success having won the UNESCO International Composers Rostrum in 2004 and working with ensembles across the globe, including the Kronos Quartet. 
Her music is extremely hard to define, but does stand to emulate what many composers in the Baltic are striving for these days. A music drawing on modern colours and gestures but still somehow deeply connected to the past, or at least never totally throwing it away. The result, especially in Santa's case is just divine. 

The particular work I want to focus on is her piano concerto, written in 2014 and premiered by the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, with Vestard Shimkus as the soloist. Opening with a slow gathering shimmer of whistles, voices enter slowly providing a glistening backdrop for the soloist to pronounce himself. The texture is incredibly fragile, but just strong enough to allow the pianist to really explore the gorgeous harmonies. The building landscape is simply seductive and dizzying. You can feel yourself being sucked into this world and just being consumed by its dazzling splendour. The texture always evolves allowing different instruments to discuss with the soloist who is always dictating and discussing ideas with the orchestra. The sensation feels weirdly democratic, with every voice of the orchestra having a real influence in the musical discourse, as well as becoming part of the backdrop to support the soloist and the other instrument interacting with them. 

As the work progresses, the piano lines become more and more flamboyant, but never feel like virtuosic showing off. But eventually leads to a moment of crystalline calm. Where the piano is left with just percussion instruments. The moment slowly builds to an almost cadenza-like passage, or even a recitative, with the percussion simply laying a music framework to respond to. The passage is extremely extended, but is mystifying. Then as if the weather was changing, all of a sudden the full orchestra return, rolling in. Like a slowly rising flood, the orchestra builds, and grows, but somehow the soloist stays afloat. Despite the growing strength and might of the orchestra, the sensation always feels powerful, but never violent. Then when you think the soloist is going to be completely consumed, the orchestra disappears like a breeze. 

The concluding moments are just as magical as the rest of the concerto. It is a curious sensation, you feel like you have gone on a massive journey; but equally feel like you have stayed put the entire time. Almost like an outer body experience, or a rather peaceful LSD trip. The glistening colours and beauty of it all, while staying in a very familiar territory. The work could have a parallel drawn between it and Faure's Requiem. Requiem's traditional instill all the powers of fire and brimstone gospel, but Faure managed to simply meditate on the idea of life and death. What Santa Ratniece has done in her piano concerto, is taken a form which usually demands a 'conflict' or at least some virtuosic magic, and replaced it with a musical platform for the soloist to just be. Allowing the soloist and the listener to consider many angles and viewpoints, consider different ideas, but never becoming threatened or chastised in anyway. But merely allowing yourself to grow with your ideas and finding the real strength, majesty, and power within such a modest approach. I am simply dumbfounded. Anything I say now is just repeating myself nonsensically, so all I suggest is have a listen for yourself. 


  1. I am so happy to have found the music of Santa Ratniece. Thank you for introducing it here. Miraculous music.

    1. She is quite the remarkable composer. I do aim to chat a bit more about her over the coming months!