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Pēteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra (2018) [33:30]
Message (1988) [16:08]
Lauda (1985) [19:02]
Albrecht Mayer (oboe)
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Andris Poga
rec. 16-17 July 2020 (Message, Lauda) & 20-21 July 2020 (Concerto), Great Guild Hall, Riga
ONDINE ODE 1355-2 [68:41]

This brand-new release contrasts two relatively early works and one of Vasks' most recent pieces, composed two years ago. As such, it also provides a good opportunity to appraise the composer's stylistic progress.

Both Message (Vēstijums) and Lauda were composed in the early 80,'s when Vasks was still under the influence of Polish composers, in particular Lutosławski, whom he greatly admired and which accounts for some aleatoric writing heard in some episodes of Message and Lauda. At the outset of his composing career, Vasks wrote a few works for the piano duo Novika-Haradžanjans: Music for Two Pianos (1974), In memoriam (1977) and Toccata for Two Pianos (1977) which – to the best of my knowledge – have not been recorded so far. Message was also composed for them and they recorded it in 1994 with the Riga Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Krišs Rusmanis (Conifer CDCF 236). The composer described this work as a battle between good and evil, which is in fact a recurring theme in his output. One must keep in mind that Latvia's history has been a complicated one, since the country has been ruled by so many invaders and that Latvia's independence was hard won. Vasks' music quite often reflects those states of mind although he describes himself as a “sad optimist”. In spite of the turmoil generated in the course of Message (that is often where the aleatoric writing is to be heard) there are oases of calm and sunshine. In his sleeves notes for the Conifer disc, Rusmanis rightly writes that Vasks' message is to be optimistic because the beauty and strength of nature will emerge triumphant - which may sound a bit over-optimistic, considering the present situation as far as world climate is concerned. Incidentally, Message is not a proper concerto but a piece in which the two pianos act as primi inter pares, adding some more colour to the strings and the percussion. By the way, the pianists are unnamed here.

Lauda is still more connected to Latvia as a country and a people. The work was written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Krišjānis Barons. who is the most famous and possibly the most prolific collector, folklorist and publisher of spoken Latvian folk songs. (I owe this information to Orests Silabriedis whose notes for the present release are quite helpful and most interesting.) At the time the piece was composed, Latvia was still under Soviet rule, although Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power some time earlier. The composer mentioned that Lauda “was his form of spiritual protest, an anthem to my nation, my culture, the very existence and being of my people”. In much the same way as with Message, the music alternates sections which are folk-inflected and of a more violent nature, such as the last big climax in which the music almost runs riot in an almost unstoppable rush into the abyss before calming down.

The Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra completed in 2018 is one of Vasks' s most recent works. It is his third concerto for wind instruments, the earlier ones being the Concerto for Cor anglais and Orchestra (1989) and the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (2007/8, rev. 2011). “In my view, the oboe is a pastoral instrument. The concerto could be viewed as akin to a human life with its beginning, maturity and departure” (the composer's words quoted in the sleeve notes). The concerto is in three movements: Morning pastorale, Scherzando and Evening pastorale.  The first movement opens quietly and the music opens slowly with warmly singing cantilenas that develop in complete freedom. As might be expected, the second movement Scherzando is somewhat more developed and more dynamic. (Actually, it is twice as long as the first movement.) The music of the second movement is also noteworthy for the inclusion of a Latvian folk song and for its dancing mood, which makes it one of the happiest things in Vasks's work. A cadenza soon leads into the final movement which also quotes a Latvian folk song or – at least – a phrase redolent of a Latvian folk song. The music then seems to veer into a more melancholy mood and one might think that the music will slowly fade into complete silence but not so; for at the very end, the oboe sings out with the voice of a bird, the percussion joins in, and within the timespan of a small coda, something new has bloomed in front of our eyes (Orests Silabriedis' words, with which I cannot but agree). Vasks's Oboe Concerto is certainly one of his brightest and sunniest works, much in the same vein as the almost contemporary Summer Dances for two violins (2017). (By the way I wonder whether I am the only one to think of Vaughan Williams.) I suppose that some will find the work a bit too long for its own good and the music a tad too meandering but the Oboe Concerto is a deeply felt, heart-warming and straightforward piece of music bringing some much-needed solace in our troubled times. It is also simply a splendid addition to the oboe repertoire and I am sure that many oboists will eagerly pick it up, for here is deeply humane and sincere music that deserves to be heard.

All three works receive excellent performances. Albrecht Mayer delivers a wonderfully assured and immaculate reading of the often-taxing oboe part and the Latvian orchestra play at their very best with unflinching commitment. Vasks' admirers will be delighted to hear a new piece as well as fine readings of two important works from his earlier output; there is much to enjoy in this superb new release.

Hubert Culot

Previous review: Stephen Barber

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