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Talivaldis Kenins & John Beckwith Portraits
Canadian Centrediscs CMCCD 9403 & CMCCD 9103

Eitan Cornfield's documentaries for CBC Radio's Two New Hours offer in-depth insight into the genesis of contemporary music in Canada and the stories, almost without exception, make for engrossing listening and illumination; models deserving copying elsewhere.

Talivaldis Kenins (b. 1919) is a Canadian composition teacher and composer (his order of primacy), enjoying well earned retirement from both occupations in his 80s after his motivation dwindled in old age. Born into an eminent and influential family in Riga, Talivaldis was forced to leave Latvia when it was occupied by the Soviets after World War II. Something of a dilettante musician and pianist, good fortune helped him to a place at the Paris Conservatoire, where he found himself in class with notable future luminaries, whose brilliant talents persuaded him to study with determination, and to value craft as indispensible, something he was able to pass on to his own pupils in due course. His teachers included Messiaen and his early Septet was premiered in Darmstadt by the great Herman Scherchen. In 1951 he moved to Canada, first as a church organist, and soon to Toronto University where he eventually became head of composition studies and president of the Canadian Leaugue of Composers. He never repudiated his Latvian origins (and continued to speak Latvian at home). His success as a prolific composer (10 symphonies etc etc) has owed a great deal to support by the Latvian diaspora, later with commissions and performances in Canada and back in Riga; they are not often played in regular mainstream concerts.

Cornfield's survey has pertinent memories and observations from colleagues, family and his biographer; it is said by those who would know that Latvian melody and speech rhythms pervade his style. Kenins himself is self deprecating and ironical; he saw himself as a follower rather than innovator, with Ravel his ideal model as a consummate craftsman. He became interested in modern developments, but only dipping his toe into aleatorism etc (4th Symphony).

The accompanying CD is a well chosen selection, with that symphony representing his orchestral music, together with two chamber works and an early piano sonata which has clear links to Prokofiev. I found all the music compelled attention and retained it; each of those works should gain welcome whenever heard, whether by 'ordinary' listeners or the cognescenti. Kenins himself professes to have always lost interest in his works straight after completing the compositional process which had always absorbed him. Never a self-promoter, he affects unconcern whether they get played or not; he was always moving on to the next task, and explained exactly how he tackled the briefings for his numerous commissions. Putting his final thoughts into a 40 minute nonet " L'ultima Sinfonia " he stopped composing decisively and retreated to family life, his piano remaining unplayed at home.

The production and documentation is of the usual high standard in this CMC Composers Portraits series. The works given complete, and the extract of others, leave you wanting to know more of the music and the man.

John Beckwith (b.1927) in complete contrast. Canadian many generations back, he has been concerned to bring to his music the sounds of Canada, to give it 'a sense of place'. It is an eclectic oeuvre, with interest in theatre and community works, and he has been concerned with the 'unfairness' that Canada did not have the advantages of richer European countries with well endowed record labels and radio stations to promote its indigenous music. He became the universally recognised authority on Canadian music and all its composers; his own contributions number over 130 works in many genres and he taught Canadian Music as a new study course; this CD documentary centres on that topic and the lack of documentation and absence of any encyclopaedia on new Canadian music before Beckwith stimulated the first one.

The CD selection includes Taking a Stand (1972), a theatrical and musically fairly advanced piece for brass , a trio for wordless soprano vocalise, clarinet and piano which is probably played in recitals alongside the ubiquitous Shepherd on the Rock; settings of texts by Margaret Laurence ( Stacey, a monologue for voice and piano) and a choral suite about Shakespeare and Stratford by Margaret Atwood for large forces; the sort of thing Britten did in his community music. I doubt whether most of those would cross the ocean to make a mark in UK, but Stacey could be worth trying out as an encore by a Canadian recitalist, as a change from Coward cabaret songs and Ades' True Story which depends on its punch-line, now too familiar. The CD is of interest as throwing light on the difficulties for contemprary classical music in Canada and the general thesis of undeserved neglect holds good; it must be remembered that the only festival of Canadian music in London over many years attracted paltry audience support at the South Bank Centre.



© Peter Grahame Woolf