Held across four weekends in two Latvian cities, the Riga Jurmala Festival quickly made its mark in its first season in 2019. Covid-19 brought the 2020 festival to an abrupt stop, although masterclasses transferred to an online format, but artistic director Martin Engstroem has come back confidently to announce the next edition for July and August 2021.

Yuja Wang performs at the 2019 Riga Jurmala Festival
© Reinis Oliņš

Latvia has produced many great classical musicians, but one of the very finest was conductor Mariss Jansons. He was scheduled to conduct the very first concert in the inaugural Riga Jurmala Festival in 2019, but illness robbed him of the opportunity. His death last November indeed robbed the musical world of one of its greats, but two of the orchestras of which Jansons was chief conductor appear in the 2021 festival. Both those orchestras – the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the Royal Concertgebouw – are currently still without new chief conductors, so it will be fascinating to see how two British conductors – Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Daniel Harding respectively – make their mark in their Latvian appearances.

Each of the four weekends features an orchestral mini-residency – two in Riga, two in Jurmala. Gardiner and the Bavarians launch the festival in July. “If I were a pianist, I would carry this hall’s acoustic around with me,” wrote Roy Westbrook when reviewing from the Dzintari Concert Hall in 2019. The lucky pianist on that occasion was Yuja Wang and she is back in the Dzintari to play Brahms’ mighty First Piano Concerto, a 50-minute epic of the concerto repertoire which really stretches the fingers. Gardiner pairs it with the Second Symphony by Brahms’ great friend, Robert Schumann. It’s a restless, rebellious work, but leads to an upbeat finale. Gardiner then swaps the composers around for his second programme: Schumann’s Piano Concerto (with soloist Sir András Schiff) and a Brahms symphony, the thrusting First.

Dzintari Concert Hall
© Riga Jurmala Festival

Harding and the Royal Concertgebouw are the other visitors to the Dzintari Hall on the closing weekend. The RCO has a noble tradition as Bruckner interpreters and they play the Seventh Symphony, a mighty work whose Adagio features a single cymbal clash at its climax, composed – according to legend – when Bruckner received news of the death of Richard Wagner. The heavyweight programme also has Yefim Bronfman playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Harding’s second concert turns French and neoclassical: Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and La Mer provide colour; soprano Renée Fleming performs Olivier Messiaen’s song cycle Poèmes pour Mi; and Stravinsky’s ballet Agon brings clean, neoclassical lines.

The Latvian National Opera in Riga hosts the other two illustrious orchestras, the St Petersburg Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony. Yuri Temirkanov has chief conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic for an incredible 32 years and counting (although he’s got a long way to go to match his predecessor Evgeny Mravinsky’s 50 years!) They bring classic Russian fare to Riga, including Scheherazade, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Truls Mørk is the soloist in Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. It’s not quite all Russian music though, Renaud Capuçon bringing his gallic flair to Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto.

Latvian National Opera House, Riga
© Riga Jurmala Festival

Riccardo Muti brings two interesting programmes with the CSO. The first features Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, but there’s a maritime English theme going on in the first half, which pairs the Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes with Elgar’s Sea Pictures (with mezzo Alice Coote). The Chicagoans’ second concert features Stravinsky and Brahms, but opens with a work by Missy Mazzoli, the orchestra’s composer-in-residence since 2018. Orpheus Undone is a suite drawn from her ballet Orpheus Alive and focuses on two key moments of the Orpheus myth: when Eurydice dies, and when Orpheus resolves to follow her into the underworld.

Away from the orchestral platform, Riga Jurmala offers some excellent chamber recitals. Víkingur Ólafsson’s winning juxtapositions of Rameau and Debussy have been well received on disc, a programme he plays in Riga’s Great Guild Hall. In the same venue, George Li pairs late Beethoven with Chopin’s 24 Preludes. Arcadi Volodos plays Schumann and Schubert for his programme at the Latvian National Opera, while Leif Ove Andsnes includes Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata in his recital. Among the younger generation of pianists, look out for the exciting Behzod Abduraimov and Alexandre Kantarow, Gold Medallist in the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition.

From huge orchestral canvases to intimate chamber recitals, Riga Jurmala has the finest ingredients for a long Latvian weekend.

Please note that the programme has been amended since publication of this preview, unsurprisingly given the circumstances in which venues and festivals across the world are operating. Please click here to view an updated list of events in the 2021 festival.

This article was sponsored by the Riga Tourism Development Bureau