Even if they host events in a number of venues, most classical music festivals in the world are based in a single town or city. Not so Riga–Jurmala. As the name implies, this festival – inaugurated only last summer – takes place both in the Latvian capital city of Riga and in the country’s flagship seaside resort of Jurmala. These two stunning locations share some twenty concerts based around four weekends in July and August, making it ideal for a long weekend getaway. Indeed, cultural tourists have already spotted its potential: in its first edition, the festival had some 16,000 visitors from 50 countries, a truly international audience.

Riga–Jurmala Music Festival © Jelena Spasova
Riga–Jurmala Music Festival
© Jelena Spasova

Many of the Riga events take place at the Latvian National Opera, home to the national opera and ballet companies, while the concerts in Jurmala take place in the Dzintari Concert Hall, a partly enclosed, semi-open-air venue that impressed our critic last summer. “If I were a pianist,” wrote Roy Westbrook last August, “I would carry this hall’s acoustic around with me and insist on using it every time.” No wonder Yuja Wang looked so delighted to perform Rachmaninov there with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Israel Philharmonic returns again next summer, but this time to Riga and with its Music Director Designate, Lahav Shani, who is about to take over the reins from veteran conductor, the much-loved Zubin Mehta. Shani has been making waves as the Chief Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic where his excellent technique and willingness to take risks pay dividends in fine performances, such as his recent Rite of Spring in the very hall where Stravinsky’s ballet premiered in Paris in 1913. No Stravinsky in Riga though, where the Israel Philharmonic focuses on core symphonic repertoire, including Tchaikovsky’s fate-filled Fourth Symphony and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a virtuosic test for each section, commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky to demonstrate the brilliance of his Boston Symphony Orchestra. Joining the orchestra for its two Riga concerts are French cellist Gautier Capuçon, who performs Dvořák’s evergreen Cello Concerto, and Sir András Schiff who takes on Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. Schiff also plays Beethoven in the festival’s opening salvo, a solo recital where he plays the last three piano sonatas in the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Latvian National Opera House © Riga–Jurmala Music Festival
Latvian National Opera House
© Riga–Jurmala Music Festival

Each weekend centres around a leading orchestra. The St Petersburg Philharmonic also heads to Riga, bringing a pair of programmes that play to its strengths. Since 1938, Russia’s oldest symphony orchestra has had only two chief conductors – Evgeny Mravinsky (1938-88) and Yuri Temirkanov – so it has maintained its distinctive string sound even if the brass isn’t as abrasive as in its Soviet heyday or the woodwinds quite as pungent. Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Arabian Nights fantasy suite, and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances offer the orchestra the opportunity to luxuriate in dazzling colours, both Temirkanov showpieces. Two Tchaikovsky concertos loom large on the St Petersburg programmes, with Behzod Abduraimov tackling the First Piano Concerto (considered unplayable by the intended dedicatee Nikolai Rubinstein) and young Swedish violinist Daniel Lozakovich who plays the Violin Concerto. Other highlights of this Riga weekend include a lunchtime recital by American pianist George Li, silver medalist of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition. It’s not Tchaikovsky he plays in Riga, but a central European programme of Schubert and Schumann in the Great Guild Hall.

The Bavarian RSO playing in Riga last summer © Ilmars Znotins
The Bavarian RSO playing in Riga last summer
© Ilmars Znotins

Last year, the late great Mariss Jansons was meant to open the festival in his home city, but withdrew due to illness. It will be a tearful pilgrimage back to Latvia for the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the wake of their Chief Conductor’s death in November, this time appearing in Jurmala. Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck is at the helm for two concerts at the Dzintari Concert Hall. Their first programme includes Honeck’s own arrangement of music from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka into a fantasy suite, as well as Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, full of popular themes. The Bavarians also bring two outstanding pianists to Latvia: Hélène Grimaud, for Ravel’s jazz-inflected concerto; and Nelson Freire for Robert Schumann’s in A minor. Another treat in this first Jurmala weekend is a rare appearance by Maria João Pires, the Portuguese pianist who announced her retirement from the concert platform in 2017, but still pops up for the occasional recital. In Dzintari’s Small Hall, she pairs Beethoven with Debussy, including a selection of the latter’s Préludes.

In late August, the second Jurmala weekend features an orchestra well known to London – the Philharmonia under its much-loved Conductor Laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy. They’re another orchestra to offer Dvořák and Tchaikovsky; the first concert gives a rare outing to Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, performed by Alexandre Kantorow who recently won the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition – the only finalist who chose the Second as opposed to the warhorse First. It’s an attractive concerto, with beautiful solos for violin and cello in the second movement, and it should be a real treat to hear this young French pianist play. Ashkenazy follows it by conducting Dvořák’s rumbustious Eighth Symphony, full of Bohemian rhythms. Both composers feature in the Philharmonia’s second programme too – In Nature’s Realm kicking off the evening which concludes with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. In between, Truls Mørk performs Shostakovich First Cello Concerto. The late summer weekend also includes an unseasonal stroll through the snow, with Matthias Goerne and Leif Ove Andsnes essaying Schubert’s Winterreise – unusual festival fare, but expect a few surprises in Riga–Jurmala.

Tickets to the Riga-Jurmala Music Festival are available at 30% discount until the end of December.

This article was sponsored by the Riga Tourism Development Bureau