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Latvian Piano Music

Janis Medins Dances 3, 7, 8, 18, 21; Sonatina
Juris Karlsons
Piano Sonata No 2 (1948)
Talialdis Kenins
Piano Sonata (1919)

Guna Kurmis (piano)

RS-055 [Purchase from BalticShop]

The musical history of the constituent parts of the former Soviet Union can be an unrewarding topic. The most successful composers (and performers) gravitated to Moscow or Leningrad, took their place within the mainstream of Soviet (or indeed Russian) culture, leaving what remains an unedifying and derivative mixture of sub-Shostakovich, sub-Liadov and sub-Kabalevsky. Prokofiev himself, for example, repudiated his Ukrainian roots, and was very reluctant to become involved in any movements of nationalist music.

Today, the newly independent countries are rebuilding a sense of cultural identity; the conflict between local and European cultural forms has taken on a different configuration; it has become an essential leg of the cultural tripod to nurture and maintain a localist history. This is far from easy simultaneously to protect what was previously only a by-way, while assimilating radical transformations of the society and polity.

Of the three composer represented here, Karlsons' writing is atmospheric, predictably the most Scandinavian, not unlike Nielsen; Medins comes across as Wolfian, post-Brahms /post-Faure, and Kenins, a neo-baroque anticipation of Poulenc. Medins' haunting sonatina is dedicated to Kurmis herself.

Kurmis' playing is well-schooled and sensitive, but could be more strongly characterised and more dynamically varied. The Kenins is for example neat but pale, the first movement in particular lacks direction, the middle movement of the Karlsons almost apologetic in its lack of projection, Dance 18, which opens the disc, ponderous. Kurmis is most successful with thinner textures the very innocent Medins Dance 3, the chorale-like opening to the middle movement of the sonatina, and the passepied-like finale to the Kenins.

The two halves of the disc (Medins and the rest) were recorded 14 years apart, but have been well matched in re-mastering the first and older half is slightly, more metallic in tone. Good piano sound, but with a tendency towards an airless ambience.

Sadly, this disc lacks any proper notes; it would be much more attractive to non-Latvians, and better serve its purpose of disseminating its repertoire, had it much fuller information on the composers. Distribution also appears to be quite poor. Recommended for the repertoire, but sadly lacking in contextual help.

Ying Chan

© Peter Grahame Woolf