There’s something for everyone in the music of Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. Long passages of calm transcendent beauty, such as in the opening and final movement of the Cello Concerto, or the first movement of Symphony No. 3. Sonata-style recapitulation of melodic interludes (third movement, Symphony No. 3), harsh dissonant moments (second movement), sometimes spiked with irony (fourth movement). Most of the time, his musical devices provide a coherent and enjoyable experience. You may sense he’s playing you like a conjurer at times. Symphony No. 3 begins like a one of Sibelius’ late symphonies, with lyrical sweetness flowing past monumental cliffs and fjords. Then there’s a sudden pause and an ominous march-like theme intrudes. What’s happening here? The destruction of the natural environment? An alarming era of godlessness? Eight minutes into the piece and things have already gotten dire. This composer has an intriguing sense of drama and foreboding, like Alfred Schnittke. The rumbling and thumping dies down and a melodic theme slowly emerges, soon enhanced by sounds by rushing winds and snapping strings. After a few repeats of modest variation, a harsher section enters with increased tempo and dynamics.
In the third movement, the melodic theme reemerges and repeats itself—a little too often for this century, methinks. It’s not like he’s got to knock out five more symphonies for the Duke by Candlemas. He can afford to develop another theme or vary this one to the point of intriguing deformity. Despite this example of high-tiring-speed, the rest of the symphony is a pleasant, stimulating, and occasionally thrilling affair. It’s worth listening to at least several times a year. The Cello Concerto is also a worthy piece, a bit more inventive and splendidly played by Marko Vlönen. Vasks knows how to delicately enlist audience interest from the start, as in the Shostakovichian second movement. Trained as a double-bass player, he clearly appreciates these low-keyed string instruments and finds ways to make them moan on for bars and suddenly emit bolts of anguish, like the cadenzas in the third movement (ominously titled “Monologhi”). I could discourse about these two intriguing works, their magnetic moments and near misses, but unfortunately my time is up. Best you listen to this SACD with its splendid surround sound, in a closed room with the phone off the hook.
— Peter Bates