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Pēteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Oboe Concerto (2018) [33:30]
Vēstijums (Message) (1982) [16:08]
Lauda (1985) [19:02]
Albrecht Mayer (oboe)
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Andris Poga
Rec. July 2020, Great Guild Hall, Riga
ONDINE ODE1355-2 [68:41]

The Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks has some things in common with other slightly older Eastern European composers, such as Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli and Valentyn Silvestrov in that they all grew up as part of the Soviet Russian empire with its policy of artistic conformity, witnessed its dissolution and thereafter made their own, rather different ways. In the case of Vasks I think this has been a quest for serenity, which is enacted and achieved in several of those works of his I have heard. His idiom is tonal, but in a way which has learnt from the twentieth century modernists without being particularly dissonant.

Here we have one recent work together with two much earlier ones. The recent one is the oboe concerto, the third of his three concertos for wind instruments. (One of these is for the cor anglais, the oboe’s big sister.) This is in three movements, titled Morning pastorale, Scherzando and Evening pastorale. Vasks says that he sees the oboe as a pastoral instrument and that drama and tragedy do not come to mind in thinking about it. He also says that the concerto could be seen as representing a human life or even a longer period. The opening Morning Pastorale begins quietly and evokes the Latvian landscape complete with bird calls. Other themes are more energetic. The second movement is lively and contains a long cadenza for the soloist. I found this particularly impressive and thought it could even be played on its own as a solo piece. The finale draws on what sounds like a folk tune and the work ends with an evocation of a new day. This is a lovely work and a valuable addition to the repertoire.

The other two works are much earlier and date from the period of Russian domination. Vēstijums (Message) is written for two pianos, strings and percussion. This sounds like a fusion of two Bartók works, the Sonata for two pianos and percussion and the Music for strings, percussion and celesta. This is a one movement work which does indeed owe something to Bartok but it is intended to evoke how beautiful the world is. It slowly rises to a huge climax. This is a powerful work.

Lauda is Vasks’ first acknowledged orchestral work – the earlier Rush Hour he withdrew. It was written as a homage to the Latvian folklore collector Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923), whose grave, which had been neglected, was lit up with candles to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth. It was also a form of protest against foreign rule and an assertion of his native culture. A quiet opening on the alto flute leads to a motif which will dominate the work, which is very varied. This is a surprisingly fierce piece for the gentle Vasks, but a good one.

We can have confidence in the performances, by the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under their longtime conductor Andris Poga. The soloist in the concerto is Albrecht Mayer, who is principal oboe of the Berlin Philharmonic as well as sustaining a varied solo career. This team gave the concerto its premiere and also do justice to the two earlier works. The recording is excellent and the sleevenote helpful. Although not listed as such, I believe these to be the first recordings of the concerto and Vēstijums. There is another recording of Lauda, on a four disc anthology of Eastern European music from Donald Runnicles. I have not heard this, but I can confidently recommend this rewarding collection of Vasks works.

Stephen Barber

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