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Pēteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Cantabile for String Orchestra (1979) [8:19]
Cor Anglais Concerto (1989) [20:01]
((i) Elegy I [5:47]; (ii) Folk Music [6:40]; (iii) Elegy II [4:28]; (iv) Postlude [3:06])
Message (1982) [14:57]
Musica dolorosa (1983) [12:38]
Lauda (1986) [20:27]
Normunds Schnee (cor anglais)
Nora Novik and Raffi Kahrajanyan, pianos (Message)
Ligita Zemberga, cello (Musica)
Riga Philharmonic Orchestra/Krišs Rusmanis
Rec. Riga, Latvia in May 1994
BMG-RCA RED SEAL CATALYST 82876 64286-2 [76:43]
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The Baltic state of Latvia is now part of the European Union but it is only 14 years since independence was declared from the Soviet Union. Soon afterwards the producer of this disc, John Kehoe, heard a series of radio programmes of music from the Baltic states made by the conductor, Krišs Rusmanis, who is half-Latvian. Enthused, in early 1993 he went to the capital Riga with Rusmanis and the backing of Conifer Classics with a view to recording some local music. In the booklet he tells how they listened to tapes of more than thirty composers before deciding on Pēteris Vasks. These recordings were made a year later in the presence of the composer. Since then his music has become widely known and his recorded works include two symphonies and a violin concerto. All the music on this disc dates from the period before independence i.e. 1979-1989. The style is an interesting fusion of musical techniques. Whilst it generally sounds tonal there are aleatoric passages and some influences of minimalism. Vasks seems to obtain his artistic inspiration from Latvian history (the country was occupied for nine centuries) and landscape (miles of forests).

Cantabile, the opening work for strings, is the second piece I have recently come across for which the composer only allowed himself use of white notes on the piano; the other was Maxwell Davies’s Lullaby for Lucy. In neither case does the piano feature but this seems to be a valid technique for creating a particular kind of limpid sound-world. The aim was to tell "how beautiful and harmonious the world is" and there can be little doubt of the composer’s success. In the course of eight minutes the music sings in many different ways but invariably joyously and, eventually, quite sensuously.

The Cor Anglais Concerto which follows is, for me, the most important work on the disc. Aside from the rarity of the genre, it is music of great feeling and imagination. This is not a virtuoso concerto in which the solo instrument dominates. Percussion instruments play an important role and textures are carefully balanced to give a frequent quasi-chamber feeling to the music. In four continuous movements there are two elegies separated by folk-derived music and a magical postlude inspired by nature. The work owes its origin to a commission from Thomas Stacy, cor anglais player of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Vasks was initially reluctant to accept but I am certainly glad he eventually did. The soloist here, Normunds Schnee, principal oboist with the Latvian State Symphony Orchestra, plays most convincingly.

The title of the disc is taken from the work presented third – Message. This is scored for string orchestra, two pianos and percussion and is described by the composer as a "battle between the forces of good and evil". The influence of minimalism seems greatest here and, although there are dissonances, the ultimate musical message seems to be optimistic. A variety of percussion instruments are used, often as counterpoint to passionate sounding strings.

Musica dolorosa is dedicated to the composer’s sister who died shortly before it was written. This is Vasks’ most tragic and personal work although it does not seem unremittingly bleak. The solo cello enters after eight minutes or so in impassioned vein and the music builds to an anguished climax which is abruptly halted.

The final work Lauda was conceived as an extended song of praise to the Latvian nation. The title is based on Psalm 150 (Laudate Dominum) and national folk dances provide some of the material for its seven linked sections. A variety of moods are created but there is little hint of celebration. The overall impression was of a symphonic poem in the mould of Ma Vlast although the idiom is, of course, rather different.

The playing of the Riga Philharmonic Orchestra is of a high standard and the commitment of Rusmanis to the music is evident throughout. I was also impressed with the recording which is natural, well-balanced and has real depth. The documentation in the booklet is detailed and interesting. All round, this disc would serve as an excellent introduction to this important contemporary composer. If I had to be critical of something, it would be the uninspiring (and uncredited) picture on the front cover and the fact you won’t need my level of presbyopia not to be able to read the information on the back inset without an artificial aid. But I should not end on a negative note. This is one of a new mid-price series of contemporary music reissues from RCA called ‘Catalyst’. It looks well worth exploring, and this Vasks instalment is a highly successful disc in its own right.

Patrick C Waller

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