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. 

23 September 2016

Vytautas Montvila: Chorai

As things are relatively calm on the concert front for, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to return to a cycle I started discussing this time last year. The Lithuanian composer Vytautas Montvila is one of the most curious composers I have discovered during my time within Lithuania. His skillful craft of combining folk music and sonoristic gestures together makes for a rather remarkable listen. 

In the post I did last year on Montvila I discussed his Gothic Poem, the first and largest part of a cycle of three orchestral pieces called Poems of Vilnius. In Gothic Poem we see variations forms of folk music appearing within the thick canonic texture. You can listen to it below:

Chorai is an interesting partner for the triptych, as ultimately it is seemingly the most modest. In comparison to the dense shimmering haze of Gothic Poem, Chorai starts with a simple, quiet diad of E and G#. This steadily builds into a beautiful modal undercurrent which the oboes introduce the main ideas of melodic focus. The entry of the horns and trombones brings with it a really rich and thick orchestration really bringing the orchestra to life. This gradually fades away to a very serene pause within the momentum. This slowly leads to a large gathering of energy and power where the flutes and horns contest their folk melodies against the oboes and clarinets. Another breathing space manifests itself, before culminating into the largest climax of the work. Like a lot of moments through the piece, every moment is short lived and only really briefly considered. The work after the climax begins to lose its energy and returns to the same stillness it opened with.

When compared directly to its partner piece, Gothic Poem, Chorai is seemingly naive in comparison to the larger segment. But within its simplicity and restrained modesty the work has a unique charm with it. The orchestration is highly skilled and oddly austere, when you consider the sheer mass Montvila is using within the piece. Within the context of the whole triptych, Chorai is a beautiful and much needed refrain. The dark intensity of the opening can only be countered by the direct openness of the Chorai, it also allows for Svente (the finale) to really let itself loose. Its joyous bombastic energy is majestic, and definitely something I will come to in the future.

You can listen to Chorai here, I hope you enjoy:

16 September 2016

Jeronimas Kacinskas - Missa Brevis

For today's post I thought it would be nice to look back at one of my biggest loves from Lithuania during the early 20th Century, Jeronimas Kacinskas. A composer of intense originality and drive he wrote some of the most definitive and seminal works of Lithuania's history. Born 1907, Jeronimas Kacinskas was a part of the generation of composers who came to musical maturity at the same time Lithuania gained independence. This period was bustling with energy as many composers and artists were desperate to work out what is Lithuanian music? The search for national identity combined with a desire to modernise and keep up with the rest of Europe were desires particularly prevalent in Jeronimas Kacinskas and his contemporaries like Vytautas Bacevicius.

Jeronimas Kacinskas found that Lithuanian audiences during this period to be very hesitant to evolve with him, and in turn founded a musical journal Muzikos Barai which attempted to introduce people to new modern ideas being explored by artists. His desires to explore new ideas were so vital that he was recommend to study in Prague, where audiences and composers were far more experimental. Kacinskas followed this advice and went on to Prague where he learnt about the microtonal music of Alois Haba with whom he had taken many lessons. During this time Kacinskas had written his second string quartet, which was the first Lithuanian piece to use microtonal thinking. Sadly due to the chaos created by the onset of war this piece disappeared.

It is during this fraught period that saw many Eastern Europeans being forced to abandon their homes for calmer and more prosperous shores. For Kacinskas and his family, they fled the Soviets who had already labelled him as far too decadent. After a significant stasis in the USA controlled regions of Germany, Kacinskas went on to America with many diaspora Lithuanians like Vytautas Bacevicius. After his move to America, he stilled composed for many years and taught in Boston where he lived. Out of all his contemporaries in America, he was the only one to survive to see his native land regain independence where he was able to return and his music was finally able to be rediscovered by his kin.

Kacinskas's life is a fascinating one, mostly because it shows a composer who just brushed himself off and carried on. During his lifetime he wrote many significant works, his Nonetas is of particular significance due to its intensity and gorgeous brutality. The similarities with Bartok are very prevalent. This is a work I will return to in more detail, but I wanted to start off with his Missa Brevis (1945). This small work for male voices is quite a curious and beautiful piece. In its four movements you see a composer with a fine craft but also manages to add wonderful surprises within such a simple and confined space. I also find it particularly poignant considering it is a work written on the stroke of the second world war ending. And I simply adore that despite the chaos around him, he just wrote. Didn't need to make a big event of it, just wrote simply and directly and the result if beautiful.

The kyrie is almost homophonic throughout, the four part setting rolls and lilts around. Slowly gathering itself into really striking moments. The little surprises in the movement come in the form of little tertiary shifts where the music just skips a beat harmonically but it never interrupts the flow of the music, but actually extends it. 
The following sanctus builds up in a similar manner, with the same kind of tertiary shifts. The conclusion is really strong and just wonderful to listen to. The benedictus feels the most fluid with lines rippling along. Then the final agnus dei is just divine, a real treat for the ears.

The mass is brief and modest, but that in no way diminishes its beauty and craft. It is a real joy to listen to the whole thing. Below is a recording from a CD I recently got from the music information centre here in Vilnius. Enjoy!

8 September 2016

A hoquet and an exploration of 10 years of Narbutaite

This evening in the overflowing National Art Gallery, was the second in a triptych of concerts dedicated to the life and work of Onute Narbutaite, who celebrates her 60th birthday this year. This particular concert was focused on a 10 year period of her life, from 1986-1995, a fascinating period for two reasons; firstly it is a period that isn't celebrated that greatly and secondly it is a period when the trademark Narbutaite sound evolved into the magic we know and love today.Once again it was wonderful to see a concert were we were nearly literally up to the rafters with audience members of all walks of life eager to hear this rare treats.

After a heartfelt speech giving tribute and concert began with the percussion trio 'Monogramme' (1992). The work started with sporadic pops and stabs from the percussionists, the mood was very much akin to Xenakis in their almost random but almost mathematical precise gesturing. From this gradually melodic materials appeared in the pitched percussions which glistened and rang in the hall ceremoniously. The sense of anticipation and energy was always simmering away in the work, even during passages of almost complete stillness. On the whole the work was intriguing for many reasons, firstly for its similarities to major European composers like Iannis Xenakis and Hans Abrahamsen (during the modal passages). In the work you can hear a desire to find something greater than what it is.

The following work 'Astuonstyge' (1986) is the oldest work featured in the concert and sadly hasn't aged as well as the other repertoire in the concert. The intensive violin and viola duo, is full of violent posturing from the musicians, as well as passages of quite serene beauty. But the work feels a bit lost on two grounds, firstly the blocky structure ultimately negates the violent passages, almost neutering them. This combined with lasting just a bit too long kind of sucked the energy out of the room. This being said, the work is a great demonstration of the contrapuntal skills of the then, younger composer. The piece also stands as a great test piece really demonstrating everything that can be achieved in such a dynamic. The performers were second to none, but I imagine if the structure was far more obviously organic, or the work was a tad shorter it would have been astounding. All this being said, Narbutaite has evolved into a truly magnificent composer, and this work serves as a good biographical piece, showing her evolution to her current state.

The third work was by far my personal favourite. 'Liberatio' (1989) is a work I have been vaguely familiar with for a long while now as it is featured on the wonderful CD produced my Finlandia which features her magnificent second symphony. With the first notes of the flute the piece grabs you. The hypnotic harmonic material slowly begins to grow, constantly circling on itself, it lures you in. Then at points when you are most mesmerised she strikes with bold brass chords and ringing dense harmonies. The sensation is as powerful and one sided as a hammer smashing an eclair, it completely decimates and makes a massive impact.This particular piece is a very poignant moment, with in this you can hear Narbutaite found her voice. But instead of timidly crafting it into elegant profundities she used that voice to scream. The work is magnificently brutal and the acoustic of the gallery only magnified it. A stunning piece and definitely worth listening to the recording which is on Spotify.

Following on from this, a short speech was given my Onute Narbutaite, allowing for massive stage management to occur for the final two pieces. The penultimate piece 'Hoquetus' (1993) is a curious little work for viola, cello, and double bass. In short the rhythmic games of the hoquet are like watching the manic dance of a three legged person. The gestures bounce around and the trio manage to keep a sense of jollity despite the obvious complexity in the rhythmic patterns. The piece was a well programmed bit of respite after the power of 'Liberatio' and the upcoming immensity of 'Verinys'.

The finale came in the form of 'Verinys' (1995), a fascinating ritual-like piece for winds, strings and percussion. The instrumentalists were dotted all over the place creating a wonderful 3D field of sound to surround  the audience. Each musician is given a collection of fragments that they are to play and the conductor defines the beginning of each section. What this set-up creates is a truly magical piece where the wind instruments slowly gather their combined sound, growing into a ringing magnificent aura of sound. Before slowly fading away as the next section takes hold. The sensation of time is rather curious within this piece as ideas calmly drift in, but like in nature, things fade away leaving only faint murmurs of their past existence. No matter their power or majesty everything fades away. The atmosphere after the final note was powerful. Holding everyone in place.

Even though within this concert only two pieces really stand the test of time, a concert like this still has a major value. It shows us the state of flux within the composer's own existence during this time, ignoring the social and political changes going on around her at the same time. It also shows the many routes she could have traveled as a composer, reminding us that despite the freshness of ideas used, doesn't mean they give the composer a decent amount of longevity to their work. Finally this kind of concert really allows us to understand how Narbutaite became Narbutaite, and if we are to understand great composers, understanding them in the context of their own works is of vital importance. 

3 September 2016

Centones Meae Urbi - 60th Birthday Celebrations

New semester, new season, and a new collection of concerts for me to pass judgement at, and what a way to start the year than with a performance of Onute Narbutaite's immaculate Centones Meae Urbi (1997). This particularly seminal work, which draws texts from various different languages and sources based on their significance to Vilnius and Lithuania on the whole, was performed to celebrate the great composer's 60th birthday. 

In short Centones Meae Urbi is an intriguing work that is almost the perfect manifestation of Lithuania's collectives desires around the turn of last century. Searching for a way to come to terms with the highs and lows of its past as well as creating a sense of optimism that things can evolve into something greater. In the same way the Messiah came to define our understanding of the King James translation of the Bible, Centones Meae Urbi defines the sensibilities and desires of the 'modern Lithuania', that through its understanding of the past aims to define the present in a completely Lithuanian manner. The work draws upon texts by Czelaw Milosz, Joanes Bilducius, Adam Mickiewicz, Moshe Kulbak, Petri Strzelec, and Mathias Casimirus Sarbievius, to name but a few. These texts in turn are in Polish, Lithuanian, Latin, and Yiddish, all languages which have had strong traditions and connections to the region at large and very much define the cultural landscape of the area. The structure of the oratorio is shaped around the seasons, with each season defining a mood and intuition connected with the language or text involved. The whole work is a masterpiece, and to be honest I am extremely surprised it doesn't have a deeper footing in the locally performed repertoire considering its striking significance. 

Anyways back to the concert at hand, the serene Franciscan Church is a beautiful mismatched collage of ancient architecture and sporadic modernisations. The perfect setting for this oratorio. The atmosphere was buzzing with murmuring and chitter-chatter that was beyond eager for tonight's performance. The seats were overflowing with audience members resorting to standing at the back, or closing up like sardines on the benches. Then a slow hush descended on everyone and the performance was about to begin. 

The work starts with a lone Birbyne (a glorious Lithuanian folk instrument),the sound is hypnotic and just rings in the space. It strikes everyone with a powerful pastoral vigour. The soloist, Egidijus Alisauskas performs it beautifully and with mastery. This serenity is decimated by the heraldry of the brass. Their blaring chords resonating and filling the space with brilliance. The real sensation of the oratorio really begins to come together with all the voices present. In passages like the Processional or Spring at Lukiskes are performed perfectly by Aidija chamber choir and Jauna Muzika. Their diction was always strong, and full of focus. During the passages of fast, rhythmic, or melismatic passages meant their brilliance began to falter but this never really detracted from the impact of the music itself. 

Despite being close to 90 minutes of nonstop performing, the orchestra is used surprisingly sparsely. Meaning whenever it makes an appearance it is striking. Narbutaite's personal majesty and mastery of orchestration really comes to the fore in this oratorio, be it bringing the ensemble to crashing climaxes or disintegrating the orchestra down to solo instruments, it is always crafted beautifully and profoundly. On the whole, the orchestra was more than up to the task, but some sections precision began to wane slightly, particularly in sections that Robertas Servenikas took surprisingly slowly. During these moments the intent is often questionable as it regularly took the steam out of the piece. I think if he were braver, and allowed the ensemble to really let rip, the concert could have literally blown the roof off of the church. 

The three vocal soloists were on the whole very good. The soprano (Ieva Gaidamanviciute) and bass-baritone (Nerijus Masevicius) had amazing qualities within their voices, be it Ieva's naturally spritely nature in her voice or Nerijus's rich chocolatey voice, but sadly both lost their magnificence singing in higher registers. Making their solos at time rather limp. Egle Sidlauskaite, the mezzo-soprano soloist, was a pure and consistent joy to listen to. Be it the sheer ability to hold her own in such dense and magnificent orchestration or to hold a profound stillness, she accomplished it with prowess and skill. Egle was a wonderful treat to listen to and definitely showed her artistry with this oratorio. 

The end of the oratorio for me really summed up the mood and importance of this work. The male voices slowly left in a resounding procession, the mezzo relayed ideas and interacted with the group as they abandoned the hall. Then out of the ghostly distant voices, came strings, giving this joyous richness to place the soloist on a pedestal, before slowly fading as bells begin to appear. Like a new dawn on a Sunday, the bells keep growing, increasing in volume and intensity but suddenly releasing the audience into a eerie silence. And almost collectively from this silence, the audience were up out of their chairs clapping manically and in such ecstasy after what they have just heard. Now I cannot say what it is about this work, but there is something truly profound in this work that manages to resonate with the audience here. Maybe there is just something profoundly and impeccably Lithuanian about this work, that it creates such nostalgia and beauty that is akin to returning home. Who can say for sure, all I know is, despite some of my misgivings about the minute details of the performance, the work still manages to hit you hard, and that is why it is singularly one of the most important works by this magnificent composer. 

For those unable to attend, here are some excerpts from Youtube. So until next time, enjoy!