There are many starry destinations for the classical music traveller in the summer months: established festivals at Salzburg, Lucerne, Aix-en-Provence and Bregenz among them. But turn your eyes – and ears – eastwards and you may be surprised by the quality of music-making that takes place at the Riga Jurmala Music Festival. Based around four weekends in July and August, one in the Latvian capital city, the others in the country’s flagship seaside resort, the festival features four great international orchestras as central pillars.

Jurmala is Latvia's most vibrant seaside resort

But it’s a leading Latvian who opens the first weekend. Mariss Jansons was born in Riga, son of the great Latvian conductor, Arvīds Jansons. In an interview last year, Jansons recalled being taken to Riga’s opera house as a child, constantly surrounded by music. Not surprisingly, he followed in his father’s footsteps and has long been widely regarded as one of the world’s finest conductors. In Riga, he brings his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he has been chief conductor since 2003, to play two concerts in the Latvian National Opera. The BRSO was founded by Eugen Jochum in 1949 and is renowned for its excellent quality, particularly its mahogany strings and muscular brass. Both qualities should be to the fore in Sibelius’ First Symphony, with its Russian darkness far removed from the icier orchestration of his later symphonies. Julian Rachlin is the soloist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor, with its haunting middle movement, while in the Bavarians’ second concert, Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder plays Brahms’ autumnal Second Piano Concerto before the orchestra plays Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2.

Mischa Maisky
© Hideki Shiozawa

The highlight of the second weekend – where the action moves to Jurmala – is the visit of the superb Russian National Orchestra, formed in 1990 by Mikhail Pletnev, the great pianist and conductor who remains the orchestra’s artistic director. Pletnev has a lengthy association with Prokofiev’s ballet scores and offers his own suite of extracts from Romeo and Juliet, with its soaring string melodies and the imposing brass. Another Russian legend appears in the first half of the concert: Mischa Maisky is the soloist in Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto, a gloriously melodic work that Maisky has long championed.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra are the star orchestra of the third weekend, bringing Rachmaninov and Berlioz to Jurmala’s Dzintari Concert Hall. If Pletnev’s relationship with the RNO is lengthy, Mehta’s with the IPO is decades older; he was appointed its Music Director for Life in 1981 – a post he relinquishes in December – but was its music adviser as long back as 1969. Yuja Wang, one of today’s keyboard superstars, is the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto – a monster of a work, renowned for its technical difficulties. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz, so the IPO’s programme concludes with his hallucinatory Symphonie fantastique.

Yuja Wang
© Kirk Edwards

For the final festival weekend, Gianandrea Noseda brings the London Symphony Orchestra to Jurmala for programmes with a strong Russian flavour. Noseda spent several years as principal guest conductor at the Mariinksy Theatre, where he learnt a lot of Russian repertoire.

With the LSO, he conducts symphonies by Shostakovich (the jokey Sixth) and Tchaikovsky (the fateful Fifth) as well as the orchestral suite drawn from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. Noseda’s two soloists are Seong-Jin Cho – winner of the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition – who plays Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto, and Vadim Repin who plays Bruch’s evergreen First Violin Concerto.

But it’s not just orchestral concerts in the Riga–Jurmala line-up. Both cities offer chamber music from performers of the highest pedigree with 13 recitals in the festival, all clustered around these four long weekends. Click on the link below for the complete listings, but highlights that stand out include Mischa Maisky playing Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata with his daughter and Polish pianist Jan Lisiecki playing Chopin and Rachmaninov. From France, Edgar Moreau plays three of Bach’s cello suites while in the festival’s final offering, Lucas Debargue tackles Beethoven’s epic final piano sonata. There are vocal recitals too, the biggest draw being the wonderful Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja whose programme mixes opera arias with Italian canzoni.

Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

There’s plenty to explore while you’re in Riga and Jurmala. Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the city also boasts large collections of Art Nouveau. Make sure to check out our articles about our top picks to see in Riga and our guide to fine dining. As a seaside resort, Jurmala is famous for its spas and beaches, so there’s plenty of opportunity for rest and relaxation to go with your concert schedule.

Click here to see full festival listings.

Preview sponsored by the Riga Tourism Development Bureau