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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]

This is the most compelling recording of a new work that I’ve heard in a long time. I’ve previously come across the music of Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks only in passing, but this world premiere recording of his viola concerto stopped me in my tracks, both for the cogency of its musical ideas and for the sheer beauty of the sound.

Vasks wrote his viola concerto for Maxim Rysanov, who is also its dedicatee, and he brings it to shimmering life while conducting the musicians of the Sinfonietta Riga. He does a remarkable job. There can be few greater complements than for a composer to write a work for you, and Rysanov’s skill and musicianship show him to be a worthy dedicatee, not just for the virtuosity with which he plays the third movement cadenza, but for the dark vision with which he executes the work. The booklet notes explains how Vasks sees the viola as “a particularly melancholic instrument”, and that mood of melancholy permeates the whole work, but it’s far from monotonous. Instead, the composer has tapped into the instrument’s mahogany tone and introverted nature to make the most of what it naturally is.

The outer movements are introspective, slow and meditative, shimmering into life in the opening and then disappearing into a barely audible quiver at the end, but the composer’s approach is appealingly tonal throughout, using the string textures to create a sound of compelling beauty that is constantly suffused with melancholy. The central movements are more energetic but balance energy with restraint, and throughout the dusky, woody tone of the viola is integrated perfectly with the strings. In short, I loved it, and it sounds great in the BIS recording.

The string symphony “Voices” is an earlier work, but every bit as characterful. The writing is open, airy, and highly atmospheric. The first movement, playing with versions of silence, quivers on the verge of audibility throughout. The chirruping strings of the middle movement give way to surging, full-throated lyricism, building up to a frenzied climax before the finale takes the music back down to a place of conflicted peace.

I downloaded this album from and listened in Hi-Res FLAC. The sound was remarkable in my headphones; deeply immersive and utterly transparent, immersing me deeply into the music in a way that was completely transfixing. This release has stuck with me on a deep level since listening to it, and my ears will prick up every time I encounter Vasks’ name in future. This music is poignant, heartfelt, unforgettable.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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