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Pēteris VASKS (b.1946)
Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra (2014—15) [35:39]
Dedicated to Maxim Rysanov. World Premičre Recording.
Symphony for Strings ‘Voices’ (Balsis) (1991) [29:15]
Sinfonietta Rīga/Maxim Rysanov (viola)
Recorded in the presence of the composer
rec. October 2018, St John’s Church, Rīga, Latvia. DDD.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
BIS BIS-2443 SACD [65:44]

BBC Radio3’s weekday morning music programmes regularly include a quiet moment. This first recording of Pēteris Vasks’ viola concerto would make a fine choice for that slot. Scored for viola and strings, reflecting Vasks’ penchant for string sound as a double bass player, the solo is performed by its dedicatee and the whole programme was recorded in the presence of the composer. Excerpts from Maxim Rysanov’s first performance of the concerto in Moscow are available on YouTube.

Vasks has long been one of my favourite contemporary composers. I first got to know his music on an impluse buy of a Conifer recording of his Cantabile, Cor anglais concerto, Message, Musica dolorosa and Lauda (CDCF236, no longer available). His music shares approachability and strength with other Eastern Europeans such as Górecki, Rautavaara, Pärt and Ešenvalds, but with a distinctive voice of his own. Reviewing another recent BIS recording which includes his Lonely Angel, I wrote that it was hauntingly beautiful, though I had reservations about that album, from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, as a whole because the coupling is rather bizarre. No such complaints about the present coupling, which offers two of Vasks’ strongest works.

The concerto opens with a meditative and increasingly ardent andante that sets the ethereal tone, leading to a jaunty allegro moderato second movement, redolent of Eastern European folk music; the notes suggest that it’s quasi-folk, so I stopped trying to rack such brains as I have left to identify it. At times it almost sounds like Vaughan Williams’ allusions to folk music; throughout the work I was reminded of VW’s Flos Campi, Variants of Dives and Lazarus and the Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Vasks has spoken of ‘chant’ and ‘monologue’ in this work; in the opening movement, the viola is, as it were, singing to itself – the notes suggest that the theme is a conversation about our time.

The second chant occurs in the third movement, alternating between hope and despair, life and death, with a glancing reference to the funeral Dies Irę. One might expect the adagio finale to mark the low point of despair, but the music moves in a non-linear way up to the light of a bright C-sharp major conclusion.

We are hardly likely to have another recording of this deeply emotional work any time soon, but this must surely be the authoritative account.

While this is the first recording of the concerto, the Symphony for Strings has been around before. As long ago as 1995 David Geringas and Jonas Aleska recorded it and the Cello Concerto with the Riga Philharmonic – review. That Conifer recording is now download only, comes without the booklet, and is rather expensive in lossless form (G010001716068R or G010000269960S). There’s also a Teldec recording, with the Violin Concerto, which appears still to be available from Amazon US.

The symphony comes from a period of turmoil in the composer’s life, when the dying embers of the repressive Soviet Union were burning themselves out in the Baltic states – there were tanks in the streets as Vasks completed the first movement – and the composer was avowedly under the influence of the Polish avant-garde, especially Lutosławski. The three voices, which give the work its title, are those of silence, opening the work almost inaudibly, life and conscience; at the end the music returns to the silence of its beginning. The work also concludes on a note of optimism; on the day of the premiere in Finland the three Baltic states were able to assert their independence by flying their own flags.

The music may be less ethereal, more searingly intense than the Viola Concerto, especially in the long central movement, where the forces of life often seem at odds with each other, as if many voices are trying to speak at once, but it makes a good coupling for that work. Once again, with the composer present, the performance must be regarded as authoritative. Don’t be put off by my mention of the Polish avant-garde; the work actually has more in common with Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs than with anything too way out. Rob Barnett, reviewing the Conifer CD, mentions Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony, not my favourite Sibelius, but I take his point. If the overall mood is one of sadness, with even the birdsong in the middle movement less ebullient than in Messiaen’s trade-mark music, the effect is not depressing.

The BIS recording is exceptionally good, even by the high standards of their 24-bit downloads. If you hurry, you should be able to catch this from for the same price initially as 16-bit, $9.86. If you have missed that offer, it’s still worth paying the extra over the 16-bit. Like the SACD, it offers 5.0 surround sound for those who need it, as well as ‘ordinary’ stereo. US$ purchasers will find the SACD currently on special offer from ArkivMusic, too, as will UK£ purchasers from Presto.

The Conifer recording to which I referred at the outset was released in the USA by RCA.  I would very much like to see it reissued in some form; the RCA Catalyst reissue has been deleted - review.  The Riga Philharmonic Orchestra under Krišs Rumanis give idiomatic performances of some of Vasks’ typically ethereal music from the 1980s, together with Cantabile from 1979.  Three of the works are for his beloved form, the string orchestra.  Amazon US have a few copies of the CD, but priced from $34.17 up to $73.53!  Amazon UK excell even that, with a copy offered at £93!  BIS make amends in part by including Musica dolorosa with the Violin Concerto and Viatore - review.  I sense an overview of Vasks recordings coming up in a future edition of my Second Thoughts and Short Reviews.

To return to our immediate concern, the new BIS recording offer some very striking music, in authoritative performances and excellently recorded.

Brian Wilson

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