INKPOT#48 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: VASKS Cello Concerto & Voices Symphony (CONIFER)
contemporary composers Peteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1993-4)
Dedicated to David Geringas. World-premiere recording.
Voices – Symphony for Strings (1991)
Dedicated to Juha Kangas.
David Geringas cello
Riga Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Jonas Aleksa
CONIFER (BMG Classics) 75605-51271-2 [61’48”] full-price
Latvia was one of the first republics of the former Soviet Union to break free and gain independence in 1990-1. These were desperate and violent times for a people who had already endured a frightening seven centuries of foreign occupation. Such are the terrible memories of suffering confronted in the music of their eminent composer Peteris Vasks, which is also contrasted by a lush and simple beauty embracing freedom and nature.
Vasks is now a full-time composer and is interested in early and contemporary music; he is also influenced by the late Witold Lutoslawski and other Polish contemporary composers such as Penderecki and Gorecki; plus Crumb, Kanchieli and even Mahler and Sibelius. He also shows something of the Spiritual Minimalism characteristic of many contemporary composers of the region, such as Arvo Prt. Such music is distinguished by long musical lines, sometimes solemn, sometimes ecstactic, reminiscent of medieval chant or Renaissance sacred choral music. A double-bassist by training, Vasks made and played his own transcription of the Saint-Saëns A minor Cello Concerto in his youth. A recurrent theme in his works is the relationship between man and nature.
The rigours of the Latvians’ suffering are confronted in his 33-minute Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. The Riga Philharmonic (Riga is the Latvian capital) accompanies the work’s dedicatee, the Lithuanian cellist David Geringas (left), who will play Elgar’s Cello Concerto in Singapore on March 20-21. Writing of the music, Vasks said that he “wanted to tell in music of the persistence of a personality against crude, brutal power; about the sources of the strength which helped us to endure it all, what totalitarian power did to us, how we are to purge ourselves from this manipulation and how, above all, we are to carry on with our lives… All this I have experienced, nothing had to be invented.”
In five movements, Canto I shows the ideal beauty of the world…” It opens with Mahlerian mists, slowly revealing the sorrowful yearning of the solo cello. A piano tolls with the strings, reminiscent of Gorecki’s Third Symphony. There is a nervous anguish in the music as it suddenly swells into a drum-booming, trumpets-flaring section of epic dimensions, which disappears as quickly as it came, fading, fading… “…then comes sudden contrast in Toccata I, a grotesque and jagged Shostakovichian scherzo (it does in fact quote Shostakovich) – “fast music has always been to me a negative sign of evil, aggression, destruction.” Among the large array of percussion is the “weeeuuuing” sound of the rarely heard flexatone.
This leads into the middle movement, the Monologhi, a series of violently contrasting but musically unified monologues between solo cello and the oppressor in the form of the orchestra. “Toccata II takes up the mood of Toccata I but culminates in darkness, the forces of aggression destroying everything…”
The composer considers Canto II the most important, where he presents the optimistic, peaceful alternative to aggression. Geringas’ solo line remains steadfast throughout the concerto, and here at the end, “the cello’s singing reaches a climax with a quotation from one of our folk songs, Blow, wind!, to symbolise the spiritual steadfastness of my people. This is to a great extent autobiographical, what I have suffered and what my country has suffered through the years of terror. And we are still here, we speak with our own language and through music I want to tell that story.”
And truly, art reasserts its position as the best expression of a people’s undying spirit to be free. The cello line sings in the fashion of a Romantic concerto, rising to heights of such brave affirmation that the ominous fanfares which oppressed it before are forced to celebrate with it in the major. Victory is won but memories are not forgotten – the music becomes quiet as the concerto fades into the starry mists of time…
The Symphony for Strings – Voices (“Balsis”) was composed during the period when the eastern Baltic countries were fighting to gain independence. The title is a reference to the cantabile (“song-like”) qualities of much of Vasks’s music, although they are instrumental. The Symphony begins with the 6-minute Voices of Silence, where after a brief but magical spell, the choir of strings tingle softly, then sadly, quietly, intensely meditating on the infinite reaches of silent thought. The cool, softly scintillating sound of the Riga Philharmonic strings are a mysteriously wondrous on the ear, its booming bass pizzicati profoundly accompanying the streams of starlight swimming from the violins. An utterly, utterly, breathlessly beautiful work.
Voices of Life is, as the title hints, teeming with the magical song of birds, a sound much loved by Vasks (right), representing freedom through flight. A sweeping dawn of massed strings arises in the music, but in a mood of awestruck melancholia not unfamiliar in the music of the “Nordic” peoples, as in Sibelius. Eternal beauty tinged with infinite sadness.
Towards the end of this long (nearly 15 minutes) movement, Vasks seems to direct the music towards the mood of the concluding Voices of Conscience, sorrowfully tracing the pain and suffering of the world, wrecked by war, cruelty, destruction. Long broad lines, requiem-like, develop into ghostly episodes of music which suddenly return to the opening hymn of serene beauty, with its gently throbbing background. We face, the music and composer seem to suggest, the possible renaissance of a new century, one which faith and optimism will bring back.
This is music of profound beauty, hope and peace, voices which enrapture the listener, sad yet stirring. Treat yourself if you can.
Chia Han-Leon is still waiting for a chance to see a real lyrebird.