This is an ‘innocent ear’ review, as I’ve not heard a note of this Latvian composer’s music until today. I see that Hubert Culot has discussed an identical programme from Tälivaldis Deksnis on Wergo – review – the Te Deum included on a tempting disc of Baltic organ music from Hans-Ola Ericsson (BIS). While some of the pieces on that Wergo CD are also played on the 1883 Walcker organ of Riga Cathedral, this newcomer has the benefit of an up-to-the-minute DXD recording, in both stereo and surround. As if that weren’t enough, the music is played by Tuomas Pyrhönen, the latest in a line of top-flight Finnish organists whose recordings have given me so much pleasure over the years.
So, the auguries are good, but what of the music itself? The programme opens with the Te Deum, written to celebrate Latvia’s deliverance from the Soviets. And what a splendid piece it is, the organ made to sound like huge, tolling bells. In many ways it reminds me of Sibelius’s monumental œuvre for this instrument. Pyrhönen is an agile performer, and Alba’s engineer Enno Mäemets captures it all in sound of tremendous breadth and power. Apart from processional splendour – which if one weren’t in chiesa would merit applause – there are moments of luminous contemplation as well. The organ’s refined upper reaches are most beautifully voiced, and that Brucknerian genuflection at the close is both simple and heartfelt.
Well, how do you follow that? Not easily, that’s for sure, but the mesmeric Viatore – originally written for strings – is blessed with a sustained clarity and economy of style that reflects the music of its dedicatee, the tintinnabulist Arvo Pärt. Small, bell-like flourishes float tantalisingly above held notes and simple upward tunes. Despite fears of impending stasis or waning interest I was pleasantly surprised at just how quickly sixteen-and-a-half minutes passed by. As for Pyrhönen, he leaves one in no doubt as to the quality of this material, his judicious registrations and discreet technique well-suited to Vasks’ highly personal sound-world. The recording has real presence too – organ music seems to benefit most from the additional ‘air’ and three-dimensionality of a well-engineered SACD – and reverberation is never an issue here.
The very recent Canto di forza, originally composed for the Berliner Philharmoniker’s cellists, has all the gravitas and dark sonorities one would expect from such forces. That said, there’s a liberating lightness as well, the piece moving rather more swiftly than its predecessor. I daresay the warm, enfolding embrace of this recording has a lot to do with one’s enjoyment of the work, which builds to a series of imposing peaks and a mighty – but not overpowering – conclusion. In less capable hands this music could so easily sound grey and portentous, but played this well it holds one’s interest and loyalty to the end.
As its title might suggest, Musica seria is much more austere, haunted by dark bass and keening treble. As Hubert points out one need only look at eastern Europe circa 1988 to realise this music is forged in a crucible of anxiety and fear; strange, gliding passages and shards of brittle calm make for a most absorbing listen. And how equivocal is the pared-down coda, as enigmatic as that of a Shostakovich symphony. Quite different from the comparatively relaxed – but angular – Cantus ad pacem, with its Messiaenic bird-calls and sudden descents into a Stygian bass. I’m not quite sure I’d characterise Vasks’ harmonies as aggressive here, but there is a sharp, roving edge to the writing that we’ve not heard thus far.
I can’t imagine a more persuasive and engaging entrée to this composer’s organ works than this. No matter how low your ‘difficulty threshold’, this music really isn’t hard to assimilate and enjoy. That, plus first-rate performances and superior sonics, makes this a most desirable issue.