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Pēteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Concerto for viola and string orchestra (2014-15) [35:39]
Symphony for Strings “Voices” [29:15]
Sinfonietta Rīga/Maxim Rysanov (viola)
rec. 2018, St John’s Church, Riga, Latvia
BIS BIS-2443 SACD [65:44]

In 2016 I was privileged to meet Pēteris Vasks at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, the motto of which is significant in relation to the contents of this disc: Today’s new music tomorrow’s classics. Anyone who doesn’t know of this festival and can should check it out for it is a superb place to hear exactly ‘what it says on the tin’, music that needs to be known and that is destined in many cases to be part of the repertoire of the future.

In common with several other composers from the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia Vasks is still dealing in his music with the emotions of the turbulent times his country went through as part of the Soviet Union from the 1940s until 1991 during which time music as with all the arts were duty bound to fit with the ‘socialist realist’ concept which meant that it had to ‘serve the interests of the people’ and to be easily understood by them. Artists could not easily be true to themselves if they wanted to enjoy success through exposure. At the same time even now it is difficult for such a composer to ‘move on’ from those feelings since Vasks, in common with many others everywhere, feels impelled to reflect the world we live in, which is not any better in many ways than the harsh world left behind post 1991, though at least he is totally at liberty to express his fears and anxieties about our world today.

His viola concerto opens with a gentle string section that shimmers and it’s easy to envisage a misty, moisty morning with the sun just beginning to light the shadows and then viola enters with a questing tune tinged with sadness. From this searching mood it becomes increasingly passionate reaching a crescendo before falling back to a calmer place to end the first movement. The second movement could not be of greater contrast for it embodies an almost jolly folk-like tune in dance mode becoming quite frenetic in places before levelling out with the viola commanding the action for much of the remaining time in the movement. The third movement reveals the central emotional core which is drenched in despair as the orchestra provides the bedrock from which the viola rises up to articulate the heartfelt nature and very crux of this movement in plangent tones. The fourth and final movement begins in the same vein as the third’s closing. Vasks has explained that in all his works there has to be a search for resolution and that is the case here but the journey towards it is much more difficult and it takes all of this adagio to reach it and with it is the hope for something better. The calm that pervades the end of this concerto appears almost out of nowhere, imperceptibly and the light, pale though it may seem, comes through at last. The viola is supremely able to reflect angst and sadness and Vasks takes full advantage of that ability; not for him the silly opinion that once prevailed that the viola is a poor relation.

The Symphony for Strings ‘Voices’ (Balsis) was written in 1991 at a turning point in the history of the Baltic States and, indeed, in Europe as a whole. Perhaps I should rather say ‘another turning point’ since history is strewn with them in this area of the world. 1991 could be seen as the end of another journey towards the light for it saw the end of a trauma that lasted 46 years for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The beginning of the symphony is sub-titled ‘voices of silence’ and indeed I began to think my equipment was faulty as I heard no sounds for around half a minute. The opening reminds one of delayed action photography where one can see plants break through the ground searching for the light and the movement develops in that organic way with tentative and sometimes nervous attempts to break through and assert itself with the main theme which, once able to do so, recurs several times. The theme’s final ‘flowering’ shows strength and resolution though it calms down and retreats back to silence at the movement’s close. The second movement, ‘voices of life’ reveals a bustling world that once finally awake, is bursting with life in all its forms and especially with birds that begin with gentle twittering and end by seeming to be gathering for a ‘murmuration’ that make for such dramatic footage when filmed. The massed strings here creating an incredible musical picture. The climax of this movement segues into the final ‘voices of conscience’ which he was writing during the turbulent times swirling around him. The booklet notes tell us that for Vasks the opening and, indeed, the entire movement, is a rhetorical question mark. The end of the nightmare many felt life in Socialist Latvia was epitomised by was drawing to an end but the music at various times, unsettled and disturbed and at others peaceful, says it is not necessarily total resolution. As the booklet notes writer Dāvis Eņģelis put it when “the imagery of the first movement” is echoed it reminds “the listener that all that is eternal remains and all that its ephemeral fades away”. Vasks is not a composer intent on providing simple answers to complex questions, rather he sets out statements of the reality, showing situations in all their starkness but does not offer complete resolution in some fanciful way since all the complex of contradictions that is Man remains and while we may solve difficult questions many more remain, new ones come along and life is a continual struggle. As if to emphasise this the symphony finishes with the music winding down in the same way it began to a silence that takes another full half minute to conclude. We have been taken on a fascinating musical journey in a vehicle that is surely destined to become a classic just as surely as will the concerto.

Sinfonietta Rīga, a band of few more than 30, punches well above its weight to create walls of sound when required and under Maxim Rysanov, the viola concerto’s dedicatee, plays its sock off in both works while Rysanov makes the viola sing in the most engaging way, weaving a luminosity that will secure a place for the concerto it surely deserves while drawing a wonderfully nuanced performance of the symphony. Works like these win the argument for ‘tunes’ hands down in the face of those composers for whom abstract music still draws them in. Do not fail to give this disc a hearing for it will surely captivate you.

Steve Arloff
Previous reviews: Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month) ~ Brian Wilson

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