Vasks’ Love to Latvia

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Peteris Vasks makes an important point that every listener to his music should know: every one of his compositions is about Latvia, in some way tells the story of his homeland. Another thing you should know is that he believes that music—especially choral music—and poetry have been a major unifying factor in his country’s long fight for cultural survival and national identity against severe oppression, particularly under the Soviet regime. These points are especially important here, because this new recording features works—with one exception—set to texts by Latvian poets.

There’s not really any agenda here; rather, these 11 pieces touch on various aspects of Latvian experience: tradition (Our Mother’s Names), landscape (Plainscapes), events and symbols (Birth), seasons (Summer), folklore (The Tomtit’s Message), and sadness and hope (Silent Songs). As they were written over a period of more than 30 years—the earliest is from 1977, the most recent from 2008—the works exhibit some obvious stylistic differences; yet there’s an underlying consistency to the treatment of and respect for the texts. Whether the music ventures more into flights of dissonance, extremes of dynamics and texture, and unconventional vocal “effects” (The Tomtit’s Message; Our Mother’s Names; Birth) or stays pretty close to more traditional harmonic and textural structures, owing not a little to jazz and perhaps to Poulenc and Messiaen (Silent Songs; Summer), there’s a strong sense of linguistic resonance—no matter that we don’t speak the language at hand. And in many of these pieces Vasks has managed to capture a combined sense of melancholy—a knowing of what has been suffered and lost—with an ever-present optimism that infuses the Latvian spirit, that has kept the people and the culture alive through very hard times.

The title work doesn’t even have a text—the choral part is a vocalise—but it’s perhaps the most “Latvian” of all the pieces on the program. Accompanied by violin and cello, this 16-minute masterpiece is like a film without need for a video component, a survey of a landscape without requiring the observer’s physical presence. Vasks’ aim here was a meditation on “the landscapes of Zemgale, where the lowlands are endless.” We close our eyes and we are lulled into a kind of floating journey across fields and hills, “resounding in silence and eternity”; birds singing, the sun rising. It’s neither gimmicky special effects nor gratuitous sound-painting; but we know where we are.

And ultimately, in a purely musical sense, the Latvian connection falls away (as with all great music, its original premise or context at some point becomes less significant) and we appreciate the music for its sheer invention and unique stylistic character. Vasks is nothing if not honest and unwavering in his view of music and his place in its grander scheme. And he’s fortunate to have the world-class Latvian Radio Choir as an advocate for his work. Wow. This choir could sing anything, and in this case they’ve chosen some pretty exceptional yet difficult music and made it come alive interpretively, but also in terms of its clear, articulate, vibrant sound. Of course there are many types of choral music fans, and among them are those that prefer to remain in the distant past; but if you really care to know what’s happening here, today, you owe it to yourself to hear this.



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Recording Details:

  • VASKS, PETERIS:
    The Tomtit's Message (1981/2004); Silent Songs (1979/1992); Our Mother's Names (1977/2003); The Sad Mother (1980/91); Summer (1978); Plainscapes (2002); Small, Warm Holiday (1988); Birth (2008)

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