Monday 4 November 2013

A highly recommended new release of works for flute by Pēteris Vasks from Naxos

The Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks , was born on 16 April 1946 in Aizpute. The son of a Baptist minister, he began his musical education at his local music school before studying as a violinist at the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music and later as a double-bass player with Vitautas Sereikaan at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. Vasks played in several Latvian orchestras before entering the State Conservatory in Vilnius in Lithuania to study composition with Valentin Utkin.

Vasks’ orchestral career began as early as 1961 as a member of various symphony and chamber orchestras, including the Latvian Philharmonic Orchestra (1966 to 1969), Lithuanian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (1969 to 1970) and the Latvian Radio and Television Orchestra (1971 to 1974). From 1973 to 1978, Vasks studied composition with Valentin Utkin at the Latvian Music Academy in Riga. During the following years, he was a music teacher in Salacgriva, Zvejniekciems und Jelgava and has taught composition at the Emils Darzins Musikschule in Riga since 1989.

Vasks started to become known outside Latvia in the 1990s and now is one of the most influential and respected European contemporary composers. His compositions incorporate archaic, folklore elements from Latvian music and place them within the language of contemporary music. Rather than merely a poetic view of nature, his works incorporate such themes such as the complex interaction between man and nature.

Vasks was created as an honorary member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences in 1994 and a member of the Royal Swedish Music Academy in Stockholm in 2001. In 2002, the composer became an honorary senator of the Latvian Cultural Academy in Riga. In 2005, he received the Cannes Classic Award for recordings of his Violin Concerto Distant Light and his Second Symphony. Vasks was Composer in Residence at the Presteigne Festival, Wales.

Vasks’ compositions include choral works, vocal works, orchestral works including three symphonies, works for wind ensemble, chamber works, piano works and concertos including a flute concerto that is included on a new release of his works from Naxos .


Also on this new recording, that features the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä  conducted by Patrick Gallois  with flautist Michael Faust  and pianist Sheila Arnold , are Vasks Flute Sonata, Aria e danza for Flute and Piano and his work for solo flute Landscape with Birds.

Vasks’ distinctive sound world is clearly shown in the magical opening Cantabile of his Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (2007/08 rev. 2011) with shimmering strings and ethereal sounds as a rising motif emerges. The flute enters, taking on the upward reaching melody, before the music slows to a more thoughtful section with the orchestra introducing a melancholy theme, which is then taken up by the flute rising and falling in intensity. The music eventually reaches a climax with timpani underpinning the drama before dropping to a lovely woodwind passage. As the flute re-joins, the music leads to a gentle end.

Percussion points up a strident opening to the Quasi una Burlesca before the flute joins in this rapidly moving piece, dancing forward with an unstoppable quality with some intensely brilliant playing from Michael Faust. Swirling patterns emerge as the flute plays an intricate, fast flowing theme before the full orchestra interrupts to drive the music forward. Various percussion instruments add to the texture and interest. The flautist is given no rest as the music grows even faster until suddenly arriving at an extended cadenza. Faust is a fine flautist coping with all the difficult demands of the composer, creating strange and beautiful sounds. The orchestra rejoins to push the music forward and, as the soloist rejoins, the music continues inexorably to the coda.

Brass gives a characterful and melancholy opening to the Cantabile finale, a lovely melody for orchestra in which the woodwind join. The flute joins this wonderful melody with occasional brass adding a lovely underlying texture. The music slowly rises towards an orchestral climax before falling suddenly to a calm as the flute re-enters leading to a hushed coda.

Written for the soloist on this disc, this is a glorious concerto, superbly played and to which I will return often.

Vasks’ Sonata for Flute and Alto Flute Solo (1992) was written for the flautist Petri Alanko but first performed by Imants Sneibis in Helsinki later that year. It has a similar three movement construction opening with Nakts (Night): Misterioso with quiet, dark sounds from the alto flute before livelier flourishes appear using the dark hues of the alto flute to great effect. The flute continues to rise up from its quieter, darker sounds to create brighter colours and textures but continually falls back. With Lidojums (Flight): Agitato we hear the standard flute with Vasks allowing the flute to take off in some terrific flourishes, brilliantly played by Faust, with some brilliantly controlled playing. This leads to a loud shrill outburst as a kind of climax before a hushed end with strange sounds conjured on the flute. Nakts (Night): Misterioso returns us to the darker sounds of the alto flute producing low dark sounds and some lovely textures as the music descends to a sombre close.

Aria e danza for Flute and Piano (1972 rev. 2010) is one of Vasks’ earliest works. In two movements Aria opens with the piano playing a gentle melody before the flute joins in this simple flowing melody, slowly drawing out the theme. Eventually the music arrives at a livelier central section before returning to the opening melody. The music becomes more impassioned before slowly falling to a gentle coda. The syncopated rhythm of the Danza: Giacoso opens with the flute before the piano enters, leading to a gentle, flowing, middle section, with Faust weaving a lovely melody before the return of the rhythmic opening theme.

This is an attractive little work played to perfection by Michael Faust and Sheila Arnold.

Landscape with Birds for Flute Solo (1980) was written for Imants Sneibis and first performed by him in Riga in 1980. The work opens with distinctive sounds that Vasks asks of the flute, low in the register, creating a wonderful atmosphere, with so many unusual timbres. It rises to some wonderful trills, flourishes and arabesques as the atmosphere of a strange landscape is created. The music becomes more animated with some terrific playing from Faust, before the darker sounds of the opening intrude. Brighter sounds try to dominate, however, the music returns to the opening dark sounds before ending on an ascending note.

These very fine works should tempt listeners to investigate Vasks further. Patrick Gallois and the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä provide a first rate orchestral contribution in the Flute Concerto. With informative booklet notes and an excellent recording this new release is highly recommended.

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