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Pēteris VASKS (b.1946)
Symphony No. 2 (1998-99) [38.28]
Violin Concerto Tālā gaisma (1996-97) [33.43]
John Storgårds (violin)
Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds (symphony)
Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Juha Kangas (concerto)
rec. Tampere Hall, May 2002 (sym); Arts Centre, Kaustinen, April 2002 (concerto)
ONDINE ODE 1005-2 [73.21]

Vasks' catalogue includes many smaller scale works, often choral. Perestroika and the restored independence of Latvia led to the composition of a series of much larger-scale works. In addition to the two represented here there are the First Symphony Balsis or Stimmen or Voices (for strings) (1990-91) and the Cello Concerto (1993-94).

The First Symphony Balsis ('Voices') was composed during the upheavals of the late 1980s with the ejection of the Soviets and street fighting and casualties in Riga and Vilnius. That conflict is mirrored in the violence in the first movement of the Second Symphony. At 10.03 however the music possesses a meditative calm like that broadcast by the prayerful string writing in Arvo Pärt's Cantus. This returns in the last five minutes of the work - the calm of benediction, the peace of homecoming after grief. Before that there is strong neo-Sibelian writing with some most un-Sibelian writing for percussion (23.00). This rises to a long lyrical sunburst of a climax combining the ecstatic qualities of the finales of Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye and de Falla's El Amor Brujo. Then just as we are sure this will all end in a glowing sunset comes a sudden violent disenchantment in which Shostakovichian vitriol blasts the scene. The composer tells us much about dissolution and the collapse of things into chaos but then finds a sometimes gaudy triumph that rises above destruction. This work was premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yakov Kreizberg during the 1999 Proms. It was a BBC commission.

The Violin Concerto is an epic meditation which like the Second Symphony is in a single movement. Tālā Gaisma (Distant Light) is a concerto for solo violin and large string orchestra. It begins with the violin warbling high and quiet in the stratosphere. Sporting Hovhaness-like slides and a benign, invocational atmosphere this work was composed after a request from Gidon Kremer. The composer discovered that Kremer had attended the same school. Vasks describes the work as 'nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of light years away." The mood is comparable with the wondering almost cerebral calm of Urmis Sisasks ‘star’ pieces. Other echoes include the Introit by Gerald Finzi, Arvo Pärt's Cantus, Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Kancheli's Simi. There are several episodes of spirited virtuosity as in the Miaskovsky-inflected section at 14.18, the violent 'hailstorm' at 25.50 and the grand stretto at 16.43 the latter of which reminded me of Bliss's Music for Strings. At the end there is the shred of a reminiscence of a Prokofiev-like dance and a retreat into the stratospheric firmament out of which the work emerged. Magical! The work was premiered by Kremer at the Salzburg Festival in 1997; the first time in the festival's history that a Latvian work had been performed there.

The notes by Johan Christiaan Snel are judged to perfection. Musical technicalities are completely absent. Both works are luminously recorded and although the sessions were in two locations there are no jarring differences.

These are two rewarding lyrical works written during the last decade, generously coupled, passionately performed and luminously recorded.

Rob Barnett


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