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Pēteris Vasks (b. 1946)
Concerto No 2 for Cello and Strings, ‘Klātbūtne’ (2012)
Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra (2015)
Marko Ylönen (cello)
Lilli Maijala (viola)
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Juha Kangas
rec. 2021, White Hall, House of Blackheads, Tallinn, Estonia
ALBA ABCD463 [76]

The clue to the essence of Vasks’s music is perhaps contained in a quote that appears in the booklet accompanying this fine disc. Speaking of his musical training, and in particular of meeting other composers from the various countries that made up the Soviet Union, the composer tells us that ‘We were all in the same prison, but when we met, a feeling of brotherhood was born.’ The huge weight of that ‘prison’, the Soviet Union, is borne throughout the composer’s works. Latvia achieved its independence in 1991, but the menace emanating from its vast neighbour is always present, and is all the more acute since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

No listener who has begun the journey into the music of Vasks will expect much in the way of lively optimism from the two concertos on this disc. The Cello Concerto, whose title means ‘Presence’ is not, according to the composer, ‘an autobiographical story, but it does have all the cornerstones of my life.’ One of these cornerstones is undoubtedly the ‘prison’, and I do not believe one can really appreciate the composer’s music without bearing this context in mind. The Cello Concerto begins with a long, solo cadenza – Vasks refers to these as ‘monologues’ – which leads to an accompanied passage of great harmonic and textural richness. Some listeners will hear yearning here, whereas others might settle for serene contemplation. The notes tell of a ‘protective cloth of tenderness that warms but does not try to protect artificially from the reality of life.’ This is very well put. The second movement, in a number of sections, most of them violent, is very different. Vasks here reverts to a harmonic language significantly more chromatic and dissonant, even in the shorter-lived lyrical passages. A further solo monologue ensues, more tortured than that of the first movement, and the nearest we come to anything approaching virtuoso display. The close of the movement is made up of music as violent and apparently hopeless as almost anything you will hear anywhere.

The finale is in complete contrast, a long, rhapsodic, accompanied cello song. This movement, according to the composer, represents a kind of life cycle, from a person’s entry into the world to the moment of leaving it. The farewell is marked by a kind of lullaby which ‘can be sung or harmonics can be played.’ It is sung in this performance by one of the orchestra’s violinists, Eva-Maria Sumera – the daughter of the fine, quirky and utterly compelling Estonian composer, Lepo Sumera. She acquits herself very well in a passage that uncannily evokes a Bach chorale.

This is a highly varied work that haunts the mind. It is also one example, if such were needed, of the wide variety of style and manner that characterises music written in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It was composed for Sol Gabetta, who recorded it for Sony in 2015. She requested that the human voice be incorporated into the work, so it is fitting that she sings the lullaby herself.

The Viola Concerto falls into four movements. Much of its character stems from the composer’s view of the solo instrument – pitched lower than the violin – as one that is ‘as full of secrets as a shady forest’. The work opens with a series of unison Cs, the viola’s lowest note. The viola sings its sad song throughout, firmly in the key of C minor, and over an orchestral support of long, held notes and harmonies. The second movement sees the solo instrument transformed into a folk fiddle at a village celebration. There are two themes, one rather brutish and harsh, and another more lyrical, even skittish. It is unclear if it is the composer or Orests Silabriedis, the booklet annotator, who thinks of these themes in terms of, first, a male dancer and then a girl. In any event, both are relatively short lived, as the movement is dominated by a harshly dissonant solo monologue that takes up pretty much half of the time that is left. A short orchestral coda leads directly into the third movement. Vasks, quoted in the booklet, says of this movement that it is made up of two elements, the ‘quest for the way of light and love’, and second, ‘the [troubled] time we live in’. He refers to a moment when ‘I seem to have found the way’, but this listener hears only bitterness and disillusion.

At the opening of the finale, on the other hand, melodies and harmonies combine to create a landscape of warmth and hope. A faster section seems to be aiming even higher, reaching out for something that might just be attainable. The soloist, however, brings us back to the opening key of C minor, and a further ruminative section follows, leaving the listener uncertain, until the music suddenly settles into sweetness, as it resolves onto a chord of C-sharp major. This is something of a shock, and so close to the end that one’s initial feeling is that the struggles that precede have not been sufficiently dealt with, and do not lead, in any inevitable way, to such a peaceful conclusion. Subsequent hearings have not yet convinced me about this, but the work is more than sufficiently captivating that one wants to keep listening, for the sheer beauty of the writing as much as to search for meaning.

Both of the soloists are Finnish and both were new to this listener. They are magnificent, playing with the technical mastery that one now expects, as well as great beauty and warmth of tone. Their commitment to the music seems complete. The orchestral writing is mostly secondary to that of the soloists, but the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and their conductor are also splendid. The recording is fine. Sol Gabetta’s performance of the Cello Concerto review is just as fine, and I sometimes feel she goes perhaps even a little further in respect of the passion needed for much of the work, as well as in the violence required in the second movement. The booklet note of the present disc is in Finnish translated into occasionally lumpy English and contains many revealing quotes from the composer.

Those new to Vasks might find these long works challenging, but listeners already attuned to his sound-world and philosophical viewpoint will be amply rewarded.

William Hedley

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