I don’t really know enough about classical music to write about it technically, so I’m going to rely here on notes from CD releases combined with personal impressions. I don’t remember exactly how or when I first came across the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, but it would have had to have been sometime around 2004, and possibly from Robert Reilly in Crisis. The first CD I bought was a collection of shorter orchestral works, and I was enthralled. It was modern but melodic, emotionally demanding but ultimately peaceful. I bought several more discs in short order, and my favorite piece soon became the violin concerto “Distant Light.” I rank it up there with my other two favorite contemporary orchestral works, Arvo Part’s “Tabula Rasa” and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.
Here’s part of the description of the piece from the liner notes:
Tala gaisma (Distant Light) is a concerto for violin and a large string orchestra. The concerto, in one single movement, is one of the most meditative, ethereal concertos ever written; yet with an underlying tension and drama. [Composer Vasks says] ‘Distant Light is nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of miles away.’
The concerto consists of three episodes interspersed with three cadenzas by the soloist.
The first cadenza leads towards a sudden increase in tempo and a jagged figure as in folk music which, in turn, is followed by a second cadenza and, beyond a dramatic change of scene, a return to relative lyricism. Some of the later passages create an almost romantic aura, but a moment of what Vasks calls ‘aleatoric chaos’ sets in shortly before the end.
From the notes on another recording Vasks describes the ending this way:
The aleatory chaos is interrupted by a waltz rhythm, robust and even aggressive. In the recapitulation, we hear musical ideas from the beginning of the piece. Although there is a momentary sense of anguish here, the concerto ends on a note of bright sadness.
Vasks, the son of a Baptist minister, was born in 1946, and lived the first four decades of his life under the Russian Communist yoke. Being a Christian, and the son of a Christian, in an atheistic country was a barrier to a “free” musical life. His music reflects this, but it also reflects the freedom achieved by Latvian independence in 1990. Thus his works have a profound mixture of turbulence, sadness, and joy, the latter often represented by musical evocations of birdsong. His music is “a unique representation of Latvian culture and spirit,” much in the same way that Arvo Part’s represents Estonia, Kancheli’s, Georgia, and Gorecki’s, Poland.
I have four recordings of this piece. The one here by John Storgards and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra is fantastic in and of itself, but the other reason I chose this particular recording is the pairing. Symphony No. 2 offers another side of Vasks, his full-scale symphonic side. This is a 40 minute symphony, composed in the same basic sound world as ‘Distant Light,’ but with all the dynamics and “bells and whistles” of a full orchestra. It’s a very good piece and one I like a lot. The other recording I’d recommend is the one on Teldec by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica. This one features Vasks’ Symphony No. 1, the string symphony “Voices,” as the pairing. This is a very good piece as well, but being all strings, it doesn’t offer quite the contrast that the second symphony does, although it must be said that Kremer’s performance is outstanding, and that the concerto was written at his request.
For those who’d like to sample the piece, we are fortunate to have a very good recording of it available in its entirety on YouTube, played by one of its champions, the British violinist Anthony Marwood, who has himself recorded it in an excellent version on Hyperion with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Unfortunately it’s paired there with a recording of the jazzy, modernist Kurt Weill concerto, which I don’t like at all. (Your mileage may vary, as they say.) In this clip Marwood plays it with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. The piece doesn’t really “kick in” until about the 3:20 mark, so give it a bit of time. I think the section which starts at about the 3:50 mark and runs through the beginning of the first cadenza at 6:00 is just gorgeous, and it’s not the only highlight by far.