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Peteris Vasks. (Music Reviews).

Peteris Vasks. Drei Stucke fur Klarinette und Klavier (1973). (Clarinet Library = Klarinetten-Bibliothek.) Mainz: Schott, c1996. [Notes, 1 p.; score, p. 3-16; and part. ISMN M-001-11370-0; KLB 42. [pounds sterling]16.5O.]

Peteris Vasks. Moments musicaux: Fur Klarinette in B solo (1977). Mainz: Schott, c1996. (Clarinet Library = Klarinetten-Bibliothek.) [Notes, 3 p.; score, p. 5--8. ISMN M-001-11369-4; KLB 41. Duration, Ca. 10 min. [pounds sterling]9.95.]

Peteris Vasks. Pieskarieni = Beruhrungen/Toughes: Fur Oboe solo. (Oboe Library = Oboen-Bibliothek.) Mainz: Schott, c1996. [Notes, 3 p.; score, p. 5-8. ISMN M-001-11371-7; OBB 37. Duration, Ca. 7 min. [pounds sterling]11.50.]

Peteris Vasks. Vasaras dziedajumi: 2. stigu kvartets = Sommerweisen: 2. Streichquartett (1984). Mainz: Schott, c1997. [Notes, 2 p.; score, p. 5-19; and 4 parts. ISMN M-001-11366-3; ED 8512. Duration, ca. 23 min. [pounds sterling]39.95.]

Peteris Vasks. Simfonija stigu orkestrim "Balsis" = Symphonie fur Streicher "Stimmen" (1991). (Musik unserer Zeit.) Mainz: Schott, c1993. Studienpartitur. [Notes, 3 p.; score, p. 7-67. ED 8032. Duration, ca. 27 min. [pounds sterling]29.95.]

Peteris Vasks. Fantasia Izdegusas zemes ainavas = Landschaften der ausgebrannten Erde: Fur Klavier (1992). Mainz: Schott, c1993. [Notes, 2 p.; score, p. 5-19. ED 8102. Duration, ca. 15 min. [pounds sterling]14.50.]

Peteris Vasks. Litene (Uldis Berzins): Cemischter Chor (SSSAAATTTBBB) a cappella [1993]. (Kammerchor = Chamber Choir.) Mainz: Schott, c1998. [Notes, 3 p.; score, p. 5-42. ISMN M-001-10158-5; SKR 20030. Duration, 11 min. [pounds sterling]12.]

The renewed and reimagined nationalisms that continue to transform the identity of the New Europe and to reframe its boundaries have variously mobilized the figure of the national composer as an authentic and cosmopolitan representative of the nation. This role for contemporary composers has been a remarkable aspect of nationalisms in the Baltic states and elsewhere. In Estonia, such figures include Arvo Part, Veljo Tormis, and Erkki-Sven Tuur; in Latvia, Peteris Plakidis and Peteris Vasks; in Lithuania, Osvaldas Balakauskas and Vytautas Barkauskas; and in Georgia, Giya Kancheli. As figures of national authenticity, these composers embody the folk traditions, the religious practices, and the natural environment of the nation while giving voice to its Soviet, post-Soviet, and new-European experiences. As cosmopolitan figures, such composers demonstrate the ways in which these national or local values are transformed into more universal categories of human experience as their music circulates transnationally th rough the media of recordings and films and among elite cultural institutions.

Peteris Vasks (b. 1946 in Aizpute, Latvia) is Latvia's most internationally renowned composer and, from a global perspective, Latvia's national composer. Through the dedicated advocacy of fellow Latvian Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, Vasks's music has helped articulate a specific national and regional musical identity. Indeed, Vasks understands his expressive and creative work in national terms: "For me what is important is to speak as a representative of a very small, unhappy but courageous country which has suffered much. In my music I speak Latvian" (notes accompanying the CD Peteris Vasks, Chamber Music [Conifer Classics 75605 51272 2, 1996]). The forms such enunciation take in Vasks's music, however, are symbolic absolutes rather than distinctly national signifiers: good and evil, hope and despair, idealism and nihilism, freedom and oppression, as Vasks himself suggests in his article "The Suffering and Joy of Creation: A Latvian Composer's Perspective" (Musicworks: The Journal of Sound Explorat ion 63 [1995]: 40-44). Such archetypal musical symbolism is informed by Vasks's background as the son of a Baptist minister in Soviet Latvia, by the environmental catastrophes brought about through Soviet industrialization and now part of a global threat, by the Latvian Dziesmota revotucija (Singing Revolution) of the late 1980s and early 1990s and by the postindependence hardships endured during the dynamic process of building the Latvian nation-state.

This mode of musical expression--engaging with ethical and experiential absolutes--is a prevalent theme in Vasks's compositions addressed in this review. As such, it reflects a certain strategy of Soviet and post-Soviet artistic production that Levon Hakobian has termed "existentialism" (Music of the Soviet Age, 1917-1987 [Stockholm: Melos Music Literature, 1998], 11) and, along similar lines, what Alexei Yurchak calls "symbolic creativity" ("Gagarin and the Rave Kids: Transforming Power, Identity, and Aesthetics in Post-Soviet Nightlife," in Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society Since Gorbachev, ed. Adele Marie Barker [Durham: Duke University Press, 1999], 78). This strategy of production and interpretation does not mark individuals and works as simply complicit with or subversive to official political and aesthetic ideologies. Rather, it maintains individual integrity and agency by noting the possibility of an in-between creative voice that transforms, negotiates, or disengages specific ideolo gies and, in Vasks's case, is concerned with more universal absolutes. It is this same concern that allows Vasks's music to speak across borders and histories to the post-Soviet, new-European, and global contexts in which it is received today.

The solo instrumental, chamber, orchestral, and choral compositions under review reflect Vasks's comfort with a variety of soloists and ensembles. These works also document changes in Vasks's musical style. His earliest compositions from the 1970s through the mid-1980s participate in the stylistic current of other Soviet and East-Central European composers such as Gyorgy Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, and Dmitry Shostakovich. Vasks's music since the mid-1980s has increasingly employed a tonal spiritualism and cinematic quality, while also drawing on elements of early music and minimalism. This later music--markedly polystylistic and dramatically contrastive--employs styles and techniques not as part of a music-historical narrative but as symbolic material: aleatoric passages denote chaos or violence; songlike passages denote humanity and hope; birdcalls, reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen (whom Vasks honored with his 1985 piano trio Episodi e canto perpetuo), denote nature. F urthermore, Vasks's desire to speak of recent historical experience to a national community through a work like Balsis (Voices; see below) is reflected through the vernacular language and dramatic character of his recent music--music that seeks social valency as well as high artistic quality.

Vasks's Drei Stuche fur Klarinette und Klavier (1973) is the earliest and most conservative work in this collection of scores, written during his first year of composition studies with Valentins Utkins at the Latvian State Conservatory. A clearly articulated formal design, metric regularity, balanced phrase structure and motivic exchange, and a familiar dramatic rhetoric safely locate these three short pieces within typical concert repertories. The harmonic language intermixes triadic sonorities with modal inflections, Bartok-like chords based on fourths, and spiky clusters of seconds and sevenths. The two outer pieces are fastpaced and dancelike, while the inner piece begins and ends languorously and builds to a central maestoso climax.

The Moments musicaux for solo clarinet (1977) surveys extended techniques for the instrument that draw from the sounds and notational strategies of the Polish school of the 1960s. "Cantilena I," the first of the five Moments musicaus, is a would-be chromatic singing line made jagged through octave displacement. The second piece is largely an indeterminate glissando that winds its way through checkpoints of discrete pitches and employs contrasting percussive effects made with the keys of the clarinet. The third piece, "Misterioso," begins with the performer playing only the mouthpiece of the clarinet and controlling pitch with the hand. As the piece progresses, mouthpiece still detached from the body of the instrument, the performer must produce a cluster of pitches "spoken quickly into the instrument" and then play the disembodied bassline of a tempo di valse. Recalling both the "Cantilena I" and the indeterminate glissandos, the fourth piece also features a multiphonic passage in parallel tenths. A "Cantilen a II" concludes the Moments musicaux with another slow, fragmented melody that is interrupted when the performer surreptitiously moves to a waiting piano, creates an accompanimental waltz pattern in A major (sustained by depressing the damper pedal), and plays a waltz melody above on the clarinet.

In Pieskarieni (Touches, 1983) for solo oboe, we hear intimations of Vasks's recent works--the music that has earned him an international reputation--through his synthesis of avant-garde techniques, expressive formal and tonal gestures, and, tellingly, the incorporation of silence. The delicate opening material, punctuated by equal durations of silence, gradually expands upon a prolonged semitone figure and arrives at one of two ubiquitous motives that unite the outer sections of the piece. As the first section of Pieskarieni progresses, traces of B"" major and diminished seventh sonorities in the second main motive emerge from an otherwise chromatic environment. Vasks brings an increasingly kinetic quality to the inner section through irregular, breathless phrases and long passages continually overlain with trills, making pitch something decentered and fluid. This energy is directed to a climactic [g.sup.2] marked fff, from which point the trills float progressively downward and become more drawn out as the middle section yields to a concluding recapitulatory section. This final section is more resigned: material from the first section marked animato or agitato is now heard con dolore or leggiero and silences are interpolated amidst previously coherent motives as the piece fades away.

In his second string quartet Vasaras dziedajumi (Summer Tunes, 1984), Vasks employs the symbolic and evocative potential of musical polystylism to comment upon the beautiful and dangerous relationship of humanity and nature. Each of the three movements is indexed by programmatic titles, which in combination create a trajectory from birth to lament: "Coming into Bloom"; "Birds"; and "Elegy." Vasks's polystylism, like Schnittke's, draws broadly from early music, nineteenth-century romanticism, the twentieth-century avant-garde, and musical minimalism. The incorporation of these signifiers into an organic musical surface relates Vasaras dziedajumi to Vasks's most recent music as well. The first movement opens with an aleatoric passage composed of meandering trills descending from the highest possible pitch in each instrument and coalescing in an imitative, motetlike passage underwritten by a drone in the cello. As the movement continues to gain vital force, this drone is transformed into the pizzicato foundation of a minimalist passage that gradually unfolds an imitative tetrachordal cluster and expands to a maestoso conclusion. The substantial second movement encounters the iconic sound of nature in the form of fragmentary birdcalls. Vasks brings an added spatial dimension to this movement by setting the autonomous layers of rhythmically free birdcalls against a referential drone in the cello. As the movement progresses, the birdcalls become less mysterious and more emphatic, while the textures become more dynamic and complex. A shimmering, agitated tremolando passage followed by a chaotic, dense contrapuntal section shatter the mythic, natural music of birds. This sense of crisis is made unequivocal at the end of the movement when each instrument plays either [a.sup.1] or [a.sup.2] at ff in a slightly varied rhythmic pattern for an entire page, creating the disturbing sonic image of birds screaming rather than singing. This musical crisis spills attacca into the final movement, where first the viola and later both violins sing a lament characterized by descending semitones and vulnerable silences. This elegiac singing is surrounded by a cello drone and ad libitum recollections of the birdcalls in the other parts. The concluding section of Vasaras dziedajumi begins with a gesture that recalls the opening of the prelapsarian first movement, but which is immediately soiled by lamenting downward glissandos. Nevertheless, Vasks does not end by despairing the corrupted purity of nature and birdsong. An unforeseen and delicate D-major chord ushers in the final, hesitant sounds of birds, whose calls alternate between F"" and F#. This major-minor sonority simply fades into silence, leaving open the possibility and hope for a time of choice, change, and environmental healing.

Balsis (Voices, 1991), a symphony for string orchestra, bears witness to Vasks's experience of the dziesmota revolucija and to the fundamental questions that it raised regarding freedom, meaning, and the threats to humanity that exceed the nation's boundaries. The score includes a preface by Vasks explaining Balsis in light of the violence that took place in Latvia and Lithuania as he began composing the work in January of 1991: "The symphony speaks of my essential, most meaningful themes. About life. About eternity. About conscience. I wrote it with love and faith." Vasks completed the score on 14 June 1991--the exact fiftieth anniversary of the first Soviet mass deportations from the Baltics--and the premiere occurred in Finland on 8 September 1991, just two days after the Soviet Union recognized the independence of all three Baltic states.

The symphony is in three parts--"Voices of Silence," "Voices of Life," and "Voice of Conscience"--each provided with additional descriptions in Vasks's preface. The opening movement is a meditation on "the infinity of the starry night" and the "sense of gentle sadness over the unchangeable transience of time." The symphony begins with an aleatoric ascent to shimmering ppp tremolandos in the strings' highest register. A chorale of "infinite stillness" emerges, touching on D minor and moving above a deep [D.sub.1] pedal tone in the basses. When the tremolandos return, the basses play pulsating col legno pitches that represent the inevitable progress of time. The second movement emerges attacca from the final iteration of the chorale, again beginning with an aleatoric gesture. The music here is largely episodic, moving between passages saturated with birdcalls (much like those in Vasaras dziedajumi), passages with modal, folklike melodic fragments, and impassioned passages of "celebration, yet still in a minor m ode." In his preface, Vasks asks rhetorically of this movement: "Is this my own peculiarity, or much more a characteristic quality of my people, who have had so little chance to live in freedom?" These episodes progressively bleed into one another as the textures become more complex and the dramatic qualities of the material become focused. The final movement moves from a specific Latvian experience and confronts a more global crisis, or as Vasks describes it, again in the preface:

The return to reality. We live at the end of the 20th century. An ecological catastrophe threatens. There are tanks, missiles. Suppressed peoples. Direct questions for you and me, for us all. Approaching darkness. A vision of extinction.

The texture is drastically reduced at the beginning of this movement, featuring a heavily doubled, desperate, surging melodic line that outlines a diminished-seventh chord. This musical and narrative unanimity unravels into an unmeasured, opaquely contrapuntal passage and is ejected through glissandos to the highest pitches in all instruments. After a period of complete silence, the chorale from the first movement returns, dolcissimo: "And then the chorale of the 'Voices of Silence' sounds again (or perhaps it continues to sound). Consoling and questioning. The starry sky above us all, and as a counterpoint in the deep bass, a heartbeat." This move is revealing of Vasks's understanding of the historical present--voices of redemption are still to be heard, and action can still be taken to reclaim a full humanity.

Fantasia: Izdegusas zemes ainavas (Fantasy: Landscapes of the Burnt-Out Earth, 1992) is a continuous, three-movement work for solo piano. In contrast to the desolate, apocalyptic image in the title, Vasks's landscapes are mapped out with a plenitude of musical ideas presented with the improvisatory immediacy of a fantasia that emphasizes repetition and imaginative contrast rather than development of the material. The first movement features sparse bursts of semitone and tritone clusters whose shadowy reverberations fill the pauses separating these gestures. Vasks uses some extended technique here as well, requiring one hand inside the piano to dampen the strings played by the other hand. The movement ends with a more directed passage of rapid trills based on a stable lower pitch and mobile upper pitch and with a ff outburst in octaves. The second movement begins with a circling minimalist idea that, emerging from periods of silence, is subtly modified in terms of thematic profile and internal accidentals. A v iolent interruption follows with clusters of octaves separated by a semitone and a driving melody above an altered minimalist figure, both colored with tritones and augmented seconds. This material is repeated obsessively at fff until, following a supercharged pause, the fragment of a chorale, heard in medias res, ushers in the final movement. Such a moment signifies Vasks's belief that the possibility contained within human interiority is present, though not yet sufficiently active, in a catastrophic reality. Vasks then juxtaposes this chorale with material from the previous two movements, leaving the musical and philosophical conflict unmediated as the Fantasia dissolves.

Vasks's Litene (1993) is a setting of texts by the Latvian poet Uldis Berzins for twelve-part chorus. Litene, a small village in northeastern Latvia, was the site of a Soviet massacre and mass deportation of Latvian troops on 14 June 1941 and is a symbol, as Vasks explains in the score, of "the never-healing wounds of my people." The text (regrettably left untranslated in the score) is an aphoristic address to Litene as a symbol and the final act of the victim whose voice speaks the poem (my thanks to Stephanie Latkovski and Vita Limanovica for their help in translating the text). Vasks exploits a full range of extended vocal techniques in Litene, including freely-chosen pitch clusters, sighing, staccato glissandos, whistling, accented breathing, and extremely fast, indeterminate passages where consonants are treated percussively. The first half of the piece (reminiscent of Ligeti's Lux aeterna) features mysterious humming in the soprano's highest register and a dense texture of twelve-part polyphony, which V asks characterizes as "static." This builds to a central outburst at the words O, Litene! o, mele! (O Litene, o liar!), where all parts violently repeat these words in a driving ff cluster. The second half is, in Vask's words, "active and aggressive." Two chromatic twelve-part canons with compact stretto entrances surge into a fff aleatoric climax as a soldier attempts, without success, to flee. The final words of Litene, merging into a lethal silence, are delivered through a tragic halo of whistles and hums: "Behold: with sleeves rolled up / The executioner has his eye on me. / The boy in me weeps and dies / The beast howls at me and shits."

A number of these and other important works by Vasks are available on compact disc recordings. Vasaras dziedajumi has been recorded by the Duke Quartet (Baltic Elegy [Collins Classics 14752, 1996]), the Riga String Quartet (Vasks, String Quartets nos. 2 & 3 [Caprice Records CAP 21635, 1999]), and the Miami String Quartet (Vasks, String Quartets [Conifer Records 75605 51334 2, 1999]). Balsis has been recorded by Juha Kangas and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, who premiered the work (Stimmen [Finlandia Records 4509-97892-2, 1995]), and Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica (Distant Light; Voices [Teldec 3984-22660-2, 1999]). Fantasia: Izdegusas zemes ainavas has been recorded by Inara Zandmane (Vasks, Chamber Music [Conifer Classics 75605 51272 2, 1996]), and Litene has been recorded by Mans Sirmais and the Riga Youth Choir (Kamer... [KCD 002, 2001?]). A regularly updated list of recordings of Vasks's music is found at the Music in Latvia Web site via the Peteris Vasks: Latvian Composer Web page, www.lmuz (accessed 4 January 2002).

The scores reviewed here, representative of Vasks's individual artistic development and of the social and historical forces that bear on his music, are intersections of the progressive materials and techniques of European and North-American music and the specific communal or national experiences to which Vasks gives voice. Vasks exemplifies the dual nature of the national composer in the early twenty-first century: on the one hand, his music speaks to and for the national community that it simultaneously defines; on the other hand, his music, born out of individual experience, speaks in an exemplary manner of shared human conditions--continuing environmental crises, threats to individual freedom, and a sense of both urgency and possibility in the present. As a nation like Latvia continues to be reviewed from regional, pan-European, and global perspectives, Vasks's music will continue to show that the work of the imagination contributes to this process while, at the same time, communicating a spiritual and eth ical position that, like music, is present within an array of specific social structures.
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Author:Engelhardt, Jeffers
Geographic Code:4EXLA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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