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VASKS: Presence – Sol Gabetta, cello – Amsterdam Sinfonietta – Sony Classical

VASKS: Presence – Sol Gabetta, cello – Amsterdam Sinfonietta – Sony Classical 88725423122, 61:00 ***:

Vasks divides the difference between risk and reward and comes out ahead.

The Latvian composer Peteris Vasks likes to take risks. His symphonies are wide sprawling affairs, romantic at core with long reflective passages that can suddenly erupt into frantic desperation. These outbursts often occur with little warning. His Concerto No. 2 for Cello and String Orchestra works like this. It begins as an extended cadenza, reflective, with Samuel Barber-ish sentimentality. The statuesque Sol Gabetta plays it with some mastery. (Also for Sony, she performed a competent − but not extraordinary − rendition of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2.)

You will probably enjoy the lively Allegro. It has dramatic sforzandos and steep scalar ascents, along with subtle tempo shifts. The final movement is sedate, but with strange effects like a full-scale descending glissando, as if the air has been let out of the piece. Suddenly, ninety seconds from the finale, a keening soprano voice sings out a sweet one-minute vocalese. It’s Gabetta! Her pipes aren’t bad: Vasks’ writing for her is both ethereal and unadventurous.

And we hear almost the same sequence again in the Gramata Cellam: The Book for Solo Cello. Here Gabetta’s virtuosity is on full display, with pizzicato sequences and nervy demi-semiquavers, and an abrupt finale in the first movement followed by eerie intonations in the second. I like this piece, even the silly vocalise. What’s going on here? Imagine the planning discussion between Vasks and Gabetta:

VASKS: I’d like a small vocal sequence inserted here and . . . maybe there. Can you sing?

GABETTA: I sometimes sing the vocalise from Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.5. I once took a voice course.

VASKS: That’ll do! I won’t make it too challenging.

And so he did. It’s not a particularly edgy sequence. The same can be said for the organ role in the third piece, Musique du Soir for Cello and Organ, which Vasks wrote for Sol and Irène Timacheff-Gambetta, Sol’s mother. (From what I can garner in my cursory Internet search, it’s Irène’s debut.) The cello writing is placid but densely packed, relaxing and plays nicely with the ethereal organ accompaniment. This is not a sonata for cello and organ, but a cello piece with organ continuo, similar to what you’d encounter in a late baroque work. But Vasks has a trick up his sleeve. Halfway through the piece, the organ bursts into a fortissimo chord sequence. It’s Irène’s assertive moment, but after forty seconds the organ settles down. It’s a head scratcher, but you may have fun with it.
Vasks is more well-known in Europe than in the United States. That may be because it’s so hard to label him. The one I like to tag him with is “risk-taker.” As Carole King sang in “Sweet Seasons”: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose/And most times you choose between the two.” Vasks divides the difference between risk and reward and comes out ahead.

—Peter Bates

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