Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lithuanian Composer Vladas Jakubenas Rediscovered

Vladas Jakubenas: Chamber & Instrumental Music
Vilnius String Quartet
Kasparas Uinskas, piano
Kaskados Piano Trio
St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra; Donatas Katkus, conductor
Toccata Classics

Vladas Jakubenas has been called "The Lithuanian Hindemith," and this new collection from Toccata Classics helps explain why. Jakubenas moved from his native Lithuania to Berlin in the late 1920's to study with Franz Schrecker. He remained until 1932, then returned home.

The Second World War forced Jakubenas to eventually make his way to the United States, where he died in 1976. The war had a disruptive effect on his compositional output. during the postwar years Jakubenas devoted more time to writing and teaching, becoming a respected contributor to journals, encyclopedias, as well as drama and music critic.

The album opens with Jakubenas' 1929 String Quartet No. 4. The work receives a spirited performance by the Vilnius String Quartet in this recording. The modernist (and mostly tonal) harmonic underpinnings of the work make it sound very much like a Hindemith composition with a hint of Janacek. Jakubenas wasn't as interested in counterpoint as Hindemith, though, so the quartet spends a great deal of time developing and presenting long, flowing melodies supported by dense harmony.

The Two Pictures, Op. 2 are charming miniatures for piano that seem more influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov than the Berlin school of the 1920's. They would be right at home in a recital of Medtner and Debussy.

Jakubenas based his 1930 Melody-Legend for violin and piano on a Lithuanian folk tale. And that folk influence becomes more pronounced as the piece progresses. Jakubenas moves from a mild form of atonality to a romantic and emotive conclusion.

The Serenade for cello and piano is the latest to be written, and suggests the direction Jakubenas was moving towards. The modernist tendencies found in his earlier works are largely absent from this 1936 composition. Instead, Jakubenas seems to using Ravel as a starting point. The cello line is smooth and elegant, without being overly expressive. The piano's harmonies have a shimmery quality to them, strengthening the connection (at least to my ears) with Ravel.

The most ambitious work on the album is the 1928 Prelude and Triple Fugue in D for string orchestra. The prelude flows along at a brisk pace, the voicing of the ensemble reminded me quite a bit of Benjamin Britten's early works. The fugue, though, represents a return to the Hindemith ideal. The counterpoint is rigorously worked out in a tonal framework that Hindemith would have approved of.

Before auditioning this release, I was completely unfamiliar with Vladas Jakubenas. After hearing the works on this album, I'm interested in hearing more, especially his larger more ambitious works, such as his symphonies. Kudos to Toccata Classics for this fine disc of world premier recordings.

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