Classical CD Reviews

JĀNIS MEDIŅŠ: 24 Dainas – Jonathan Powell, piano – Toccata Classics

A Latvian composer in the vein of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, yet with a lot to say for himself.

Published on May 22, 2013

JĀNIS MEDIŅŠ: 24 Dainas – Jonathan Powell, piano – Toccata Classics TOCC 0097, 72:27 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

If the name Jānis Mediņš (1890–1966) is unfamiliar to you, you’re not alone. He was a pioneer of Latvian musical nationalism during the period of the first Latvian republic, which lasted from the end of World War I till 1940. Mediņš came to the first ballet and opera by a Latvian composer. While he studied violin, cello, and piano, then established a career as a solo pianist, orchestral player with the Riga Latvian Theater Orchestra, and later conductor of the Latvian National Opera and Latvian Radio Symphony, Mediņš was largely self-taught as a composer. He considered his time in the pit of the theater as the best teacher of orchestration he could possibly have.

Following the invasion and occupation of Latvia by the Germans and then the Russians during World War II, he and his family took refuge in Sweden, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life. Mediņš never established in Sweden the reputation he had in his native country, but he managed to produce a good deal of chamber music while in exile and continued to produce the series of twenty-four Dainas, or Preludes, which occupied him from around 1920 until 1963.

It’s remarkable that despite the vast time span between the first and last of the series, the Dainas leave an impression of continuity if not an utter consistency of musical style. The name daina can be applied to either a Latvian folksong or poem and so suggests that Mediņš’s pieces are deeply folk-influenced character pieces. The earliest of them show the influence of the Russian nationalist school, especially Rimsky-Korsakov, who taught a number of the most important Latvian composers of the early twentieth century. Given this Russian influence, it’s not surprising that Mediņš’s earliest Dainas have the big-boned Romanticism of Rachmaninoff and Medtner with a bit of Grieg thrown in; the delicate Daina No. 5 is the most Grieg-like of the set. Scriabin seems to be a later influence on the Dainas.

The first ten or so further reflect the Russian nationalists’ penchant for modal melodies. However, writes Jonathan Powell, “the thirteenth Daina (1946) is a very different matter, and is the first work in the series in which post-chromatic harmony and folksong-inspired modality fully co-exist. . . .”: possibly a response to Mediņš’ relocation to Sweden and his engagement with a more cosmopolitan musical community.

The later Dainas seem to alternate between modality and chromaticism, some having a more modernist cast to them, such as the hard-edged No. 19 and No. 22, or the elegiac but harmonically cryptic No. 21. No. 23 oscillates between driving angularity and late-Romantic stasis, while the last in the series is wild ride for the pianist, having the brutal intensity and rhythmic drive of Bartók.

Many of these pieces are quite impressive and memorable; despite the various influences and resemblances to other composers that they might have, they represent a very individual style of music-making. Certainly, Jānis Mediņš is a composer worth knowing, and I’m glad that pianist Jonathan Powell and Toccata Classics have given us the opportunity to make his acquaintance. Jonathan Powell studied the influence of Scriabin on later Russian composers, which has led to the rediscovery and “first modern performances of pieces works by composers such as Goldenweiser, Blumenfeld, Feinberg and others.” Ah, there are always composers to discover and rediscover! Besides being a scholar of twentieth-century Russian piano music, however, Powell is a powerhouse of a pianist, with a large technique and a burning conviction for the music he’s performing. The sound engineers have afforded him a comparably powerful recording. Recommended!

—Lee Passarella

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