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Pēteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Da pacem, Domine (2016) [17:41]
Mein Herr und mein Gott, (2016) [9:29]
Laudate Dominum, (2016) [15:29]
Prayer (Lord, Open Our Eyes), (2011) [17:08]
The Fruit of Silence, (2013) [7:05]
Ilze Reine (organ: Laudate)
Latvian Radio Choir
Sinfonietta Riga/Sigvards Klava
rec. 2017, St. John’s Church, Riga, Latvia DDD
ONDINE ODE1302-2 [67:57]

The Latvian Radio Choir with organist, Ilze Reine and the Sinfonietta Riga under Sigvards Klava give excellent accounts of five recent works by the 71-year old Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks.

Da pacem, Domine is the longest work here at almost 18 minutes. It dates from 2016 and is typical of Vasks’ melancholic style: long sustained pedal chords in the strings (Vasks is a double bass player), over which soar and dip equally despairing melodies in minor keys. The challenge for those performing Vasks is not to allow themselves to slip into despair and have the life sucked out of the music, for all its sadness and latent distress.

Instead Klava controls his performers by never allowing the potentially laconic to step in for the more appropriate lingering; and by suggesting that in losing heart one does not need to lose hope. Nor lose sight of the potential for imminent peace. Peace - as is evident on the face of the composer in the photograph on page six of the CD’s booklet - is more than a mere counterpart to despondency. It can arise out of the feelings evoked by truly understanding the world around us. And (so), he seems to be saying loving alternatives.

Specifically, for instance, Vasks is aware that the loneliness of the creativity of the (lone) composer - particularly a Baltic composer with all that his country has come through in the last century - should imply, or be made to imply. Amongst other things there is likely to be a nascent joy born out of nothing more than the very existence and persistence of such deeply affecting music.

The texts of these works make the same point; rather than dwell on dismay at the ravages of materialism and capitalism and the destruction and suffering they inevitably bring, a work like Mein Herr und mein Gott from 2016, presents an alternative… of higher values, of the things that will outlast them, the spiritual, the ethereal and the divine; nature, conscience, the good of humanity when it rejects them. Again, it is all too tempting to let some sort of loose wash suggest Vasks’ fight for spirit and an elevation above the mundane and the forces of depletion which have always surrounded him. That’s not how these performers have worked, though. Precision and energy are used; not colour for colour’s sake.

The pacing on this CD, with contrasts and climaxes, yet room for reflection and absorption is good too. For instance, the almost fanfare-like introduction of the solo organ at the start of Laudate Dominum, which again dates from 2016, is arresting and yet appropriate. It demonstrates well the use which Vasks makes of silence; and silence in contrast with sound. Not so much as sequential ‘relief’; but silence because it is such a natural antithesis to what sound has to offer - yet again - peace, and room and time for reflection. Reflection even while we continue to enjoy the melodies and tonalities of choir and singers. Organist Ilze Reine doesn’t push or advocate anything. Rather, she plays in a way that lets the music just… be. As do good players of Bach on that instrument.

Indeed, the music shares an unpretentiousness with folk traditions, as can be heard from the earlier (2011) Prayer (Lord, Open Our Eyes). The contours are those of the human voice, always central to the Latvian tradition. Vasks’ compositions are not ‘folkish’, though. For example the voice often emerges from and merges happily into instrumental, organ and chamber passages so as to suggest art and the built environment. It’s tempting (at least useful) to read this as the composer facing his nemeses full face and playing them at their own game. He specifically shows that in every negative is a positive implied and possible.

These players take such an idea further and demonstrate how good and evil, joy and misery, ends and beginnings can co-exist: because they each have the seeds of the other(s). The vocal delivery and focus of the Latvian Radio Choir, for instance, towards the end of Laudate Dominum [tr.3] shows just how thoroughly they understand Vasks’ own musical and emotional world. They sing with forward and upward movement. Yet they temper any risk of exaltation with exactness and restraint.

A parallel attribute is present in the second longest work here, the Prayer (Lord, Open Our Eyes), which - by setting texts of such simplicity with sophisticated textures and tonal progressions - must sooner or later suggest to anyone that even the worst times (even death) imply a continuity and durability… provided we know where to look for it. Such was indeed the message of Mother Teresa, two of whose texts (the Prayer and The Fruit of Silence) are set on this CD.

The contrapuntal passage after six minutes in to the Prayer for instance creates a tension, expertly tightened and maintained by choir and orchestra. It speaks of hope as much as any less well-defined melodic journey might. Similarly, The Fruit of Silence achieves its great effect not by having the performers set out in blind faith for some sort of approximation of the sweeps and swoops of this (almost exhaustingly) sad musical world. But by meticulous phrasing and a sense of precision which results in our experiencing every aspect of what is - to be sure - very persuasive music at much greater ‘resolution’.
At times individual voices of the two dozen or so strong Latvian Radio Choir can be made out. Peace doesn’t either invent itself or come unaided. There is more work and discipline in those voices than there is generic mystery or magic - for all that the overall effect of most of these mostly slow works by Vasks is one of massive emotion. As Vasks would no doubt say when referring to (the act of) prayer: one cannot be vague or merely expectant. It is vital to communicate and reciprocate. This is the spirit of these performances, not shapes or shadows. Meditation cannot be let wander. And one is left by the end of The Fruit of Silence with (as surely Vasks would want) a great sense of deep and lasting peace.
The plentiful and resonant (yet contained) acoustic of St. John’s Church in the Latvian capital Riga is well suited to these works; it affords a sense of space and plenty without spuriously adding ‘atmosphere’ to music which is sufficient in and of itself. In addition to the texts in Latin, German and English, the short booklet has context and description of the works and pictures/brief biographies of the performers. Only The Fruit of Silence is available on another recording (Decca 002573602) - of works not all by Vasks. Even were this not the case, Klava and his forces have managed to produce just over an hour’s music-making which is as vibrant as it is dour and thoughtful; as evocative as it is original; and as thoughtfully-articulated as it is gripping. Recommended without hesitation for anyone new to Vasks - and of course for those who happily collect as much as they can from this under-rated composer and thinker.
Mark Sealey



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