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Georgs PELĒCIS (b. 1947)
1. Revelation (2003) [15:07]
2. Nevertheless (1994) [27:41]
3. Buena Riga (Astor Piazzolla, Oskar Strock and Me) (2001) [19:13]
4. The Last Song [4:48]
Gidon Kremer (violin: 2-4); Katia Skanavi (piano: 1, 2); Jānis šipkēvics (alto: 1); Gabor Boldoczki (trumpet: 1)
Kremerata Baltica
rec. Radio Studios, Riga, Latvia, November 2005
MEGADISC MDC7797 [67:03]

Experience Classicsonline

Georgs Pelēcis is Latvian, musically educated in the Soviet era in Moscow at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire where his composition teacher was Aram Khachaturian and his classmate was Gidon Kremer. That in itself should be a clue that we are not looking at a hard-nosed modernist. He is one of his country’s most important composers and is a professor at the Latvian Academy of Music. His compositional style has been described as “new consonant music” but also with an ancestry stretching back to the Renaissance and forward to minimalism. The most significant difference to his Baltic counterpart Arvo Pärt is the rhythmic drive that permeates all of his music that I have heard.

My first encounter with his music was listening to Australia’s national classical music radio station whilst driving to work. An obviously modern orchestral work featuring piano and violin was playing and it was so, so beautiful. When I got to work, I remained in the car, entranced and waiting for the presenter to tell me what the music was. When he did, you will understand that the information was less than useful, given the almost total obscurity of the composer. Fortunately, the Internet solves such problems, and I was able to get the name and CD details. The work was Nevertheless, a concerto for violin, piano and strings, the violinist was the work’s dedicatee Gidon Kremer, and the disc entitled From My Home, a collection of works by contemporary Baltic state composers, including Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür and Peteris Vasks (Teldec 0630 146542). I ordered the disc and found that what I had heard was the final section of a work lasting almost thirty minutes. Some of the other works on the disc were a little modernist for my liking, but it didn’t matter. More than five years on, Nevertheless remains one of the most played works in “my home”. It would be one of my Desert Island discs.

Hoping to find more music from Pelēcis, I scoured the record catalogues with minimal success. All I could find was one short piano piece on BIS and another Gidon Kremer-led work, Meeting with a friend on DG. Very frustrating, until of the blue comes this disc - the first dedicated to solely to Pelēcis’s music. As you can see, it features Kremer again, and Nevertheless again.

Revelation is described on a list of Pelēcis compositions as being scored for counter-tenor, flute, viola da gamba and harpsichord. In this recording, the cast is contralto, trumpet, piano and strings, quite a difference. I’m not sure whether to call it an extended song or a cantata, but that should give you the general idea. It has three sections: the Revelation of Saint John, Gloria in Excelsis Deo and Hallelujah. It is an exhilarating and relentless piece, predominantly up tempo with the strings providing nervy accompaniment to the hard-worked soloists. At over 15 minutes, it must be an exhausting exercise for the singer, who is singing at the top end of her range for the majority of the time.

I have already extolled the pleasures of Nevertheless without describing the music itself. I should say at this point that nothing I have read explains the meaning of the title. It has been performed as a ballet a number of times. Described as a concerto, it is nevertheless (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!) a single movement without obvious sections, more a gradual development of ideas throughout its 28 minutes. Perhaps the most useful description is of a chamber work for violin and piano with string chamber orchestra accompaniment, as it is very much a conversation between the two solo instruments. The piano begins alone in a minor key, melancholy and minimalist. The violin and strings joins in, equally sadly and soon establishes one of the key themes for the whole work, a bittersweet rising and falling scale. The sad mood continues with the piano returning, single notes over low strings. At 6:30, a change in mood begins: the violin returns, now happy and buoyant, bringing to mind The Lark Ascending. It doesn’t dispel the sadness in the piano, and the next 10-12 minutes alternate between the violin increasingly rapturous “swimming in happiness” - the composer’s words - and the melancholic simplicity of the piano. After an entreaty from the absolute top end of the violin’s range, the piano begins to emerge from its shell - the simple, single note refrain makes way for a gentle melody and significantly, the violin is now able to sing in duet for the first time with its partner. The violin and strings begin a swaying dance in which the piano is initially hesitant to join, but does so with increasing joy, singing the violin’s theme and then one of its own. The climax is a wonderful rustic dance in the spirit of Copland, that would melt the iciest of hearts. I realise, reading back over what I have written, that I have probably gone “over the top” in my description. I hope you will forgive me: this is the most life-affirming music I know.

After the emotional journey of Nevertheless, Buena Riga provides a simpler ride for the listener. The clue to it comes in the alternate title - Astor Piazzolla, Oskar Strock and Me. Piazzolla’s name is well- known, Oskar Strock’s less so. He was a Latvian composer known as the “King of Tango”, referring to Slavic tango. Thus Buena Riga is a tango, with the melodies of Argentina and Latvia woven together by Pelēcis. This is his second work to pay tribute to his countryman: I now find there is a short work (All in the Past/Remembering Oskar Strock) on a tango album of Kremer’s (Tracing Astor; Nonesuch 79601). The composer refers to it as a concerto, but like Nevertheless, it is only one in the traditional sense, in that it has a substantial solo part. It is wonderfully entertaining, with delicious melodies and that tango rhythm.

The composer explains The last song as follows:

In Paradise everything happens for the first time, but nothing happens for the last time. However, before entering Paradise, every one of us experiences a particular feeling when we do something for the last time: a last kiss, the last journey, the last song … 
It is the simplest and shortest work on the disc, and brings the listener back to reality with a sad reflection on the end of life. Initially, I thought it was an anticlimax after the other works, but on further listening, I understand its placement.

Megadisc, based in Belgium, is not a well-known label - this is the first of theirs in my collection - and having such a prominent musician as Gidon Kremer record for them is a feather in their cap. The performances and sound quality are very good, and the sleeve notes, including the composer’s thoughts, are informative, even if the words for Revelation are not included.

As I said, I have waited a long time to hear more of Georgs Pelēcis, and the wait, frustrating as it has been, was worth it. So much contemporary classical music, to my way of thinking, has taken a dead-end path, leaving behind what to me are the key elements of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. In the last decade or two, some composers have dared to swim against the tide and write music which embraces those elements without engendering a sense of dumbing it down for the masses. Howard Blake in Britain is one, Graeme Koehne in Australia another, and Georg Pelēcis also: more power to them, and more importantly, more recordings.

David J Barker 

see also Review by Dominy Clements


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