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
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
No such complaints about the present coupling, which offers two of Vasks’
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, $9.86. If you have missed that
offer, it’s still worth paying the extra over the 16-bit. Like the SACD, it
offers 5.0 surround sound for those who need it, as well as ‘ordinary’
US$ purchasers will find the SACD currently on special offer from
ArkivMusic, too, as will UK£ purchasers from Presto.
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 -
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
review. I sense an overview of Vasks recordings coming up in a
future edition of my Second Thoughts and Short Reviews.
return to our immediate concern, the new BIS recording offer some very striking music, in authoritative performances and excellently