Wednesday 17 February 2016

An impressive release from Wergo of String Quartets by Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks in intensely committed performances by the Spīķeru String Quartet

Composer, Pēteris Vasks was born in 1946 in Aizpute in Latvia. The son of a Baptist pastor, he began his musical education at the local music school in Aizpute lster studying double bass at the Emīls Dārziņš Music School in Riga. Vasks continued his double bass studies with Vytautas Sereika at the Lithuanian Conservatory in Vilnius, later commencing an orchestral career as a member of various symphony and chamber orchestras, including the Latvian Philharmonic, the Lithuanian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra and the Latvian Radio and Television Orchestra From 1973 to 1978, Vasks studied composition with Valentin Utkin at the Latvian Music Academy in Riga becoming a music teacher in Salacgrīva, Zvejniekciems und Jelgava. He has also taught composition at the Emīls Dārziņš Music School in Riga since 1989.

During the Soviet period, Vasks suffered under cultural doctrine of the time but his works that include vocal and choral, orchestral including symphonies and concertos, chamber, instrumental and electronic  have achieved widespread recognition during the past few years. Vasks's compositions incorporate archaic, folklore elements from Latvian music and place them within a dynamic and challenging relationship with the language of contemporary music.

Pēteris Vasks was appointed as the Main Composer of the Stockholm New Music Festival in 1996. The same year, he was awarded the Herder Prize from the Alfred Toepfer Foundation and the Baltic Assembly Prize. He has received the Latvian Great Music Award on three occasions and 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 Classical Award for recordings of the Violin Concerto ‘Distant Light’ and the Second Symphony. Vasks was Composer in Residence at the Presteigne Festival (2006) and Vale of Glamorgan Festival (2006, 2016), the Usedom Music Festival (2010), the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (2011/12) and the Canberra Music Festival (2012).

Wergo have just released a recording by the Spīķeru String Quartet on Pēteris Vasks’ String Quartets No’s 2 and 5.

WER 7329 2
It is the two movement String Quartet No. 5, written in 2003/04, that opens this disc. The movements have poetic titles revealing the duality of images and moods expressed. being present opens with a series of chords that feel much like an announcement, especially as they subtly lead into a fast moving theme. The music soon reduces to pizzicato phrases out of which harmonics bring the music back to a staccato statement of the theme. The music moves through passages that are often intense and impassioned with these players extracting much feeling. A longer, lyrical, heartfelt passage continues before the incisive staccato phrases return to disrupt the flow, heralding a faster rhythmic section.  The longer breathed phrases return, full of intense melancholy, before slow, separated staccato phrases lead to an intense coda that is unresolved.

so distant...yet near brings a more resigned, slow melancholy theme, something of an antidote to the angst of the opening movement. Nevertheless there is an emotional edge that rises as the music progresses. Surely this is a movement of great personal significance. The music moves through some exquisite moments of reserved emotion, music with a genuine depth of feeling before a little rhythmic figure is added and the hushed coda arrives.

Vasks’ String Quartet No. 2 'Summer Tunes’ was written in 1984 and reflects the composer’s love of the natural world. In three movements, the first, coming into bloom appears quietly out of silence with little twitterings and shifting motifs that very soon gather into a fine rising melody. The opening motifs re-appear before a rhythmic version of the theme arrives, regular and repeated, over which the longer theme runs. The music increases in intensity, bringing textures that are more intense, creating almost a drone effect. Eventually the textures broaden as the rhythmic pulse is removed, rising all the while in intensity until running into the next movement, birds.

Here there are strange little sounds as a motif is shifted around with subtly heard bird like chirrups from the strings.  The music slowly and subtly finds its way forward, the bird like calls return and there are many fine subtleties as little details emerge, finely brought out by these players. At times it is as though the bird calls are developing their own flow. The music reaches a static point midway before falling with bird chirrups over a held violin note, as though the birds evoked by each instrument have a conversation. The music slowly grows in complexity and intensity to a swirling combination of strings before falling back. It rises in intensity again but fades to little bird sounds only to rise up yet again. Towards the end the music finds more of a flow, yet with the bird chatterings still remaining, moving to an intense coda out of which the music falls into the final movement.

The elegy full of intense, lyrical passion is cut off when the cello holds a chord over which the other instruments recall the bird sounds. An intense melody is revealed over the held cello line alongside bird calls. This is a quite remarkable creation with moments of exquisite hushed detail beautifully achieved by the Spīķeru String Quartet. The first violin soars high up at times as the strings weave a wonderful tapestry of emotional feeling with the bird sounds weaving through.  Later the music suddenly increases in dynamics and intensity as though rising to a peak but is cut as the bird calls are heard alone. Soon a deeper richer passage arrives with drooping phrases that leads to a gentle passage over which the bird chirrups are heard, their rather mournful cries fading at the coda.   

This is a quite remarkable work of much beauty. 

The Spīķeru String Quartet provide intensely committed performances and are vividly recorded at the Lutherische Kirche, Sesava, Latvia. There are informative booklet notes. This is an impressive release of music that deserves to be widely heard. 

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