The ethereal beauty of Peteris Vasks Viola Concerto

Peteris Vasks is one of my favorite contemporary composers. He has a distinctive voice, and his works always deliver emotionally (to me, anyway). The two compositions on this release are no exception — though they are exceptional.

The Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra was written in 2014 and premiered by its dedicatee, Maxim Rysanov. Rysanov is both the soloist and conductor for this world premiere recording.

In the concerto, Vasks plays to his strengths. The music slowly swirls in gossamer strands, coalescing from time to time for greater emotional impact. Vasks also weaves in folk-like melodies that temporarily ground the music.

How best to describe this work? Imagine if Arvo Part had rewritten Ralph Vaughan William’s “Flos Campi.” The viola is the center of the work, fluttering through the orchestra’s sound cloud like a butterfly. Maxim Rysanov’s playing gets to the emotional center of Vasks’ music. At times it’s almost heartbreakingly beautiful.

Also included is Vasks’ First Symphony, “Voices.” While the composer’s style is consistent between the two works, it’s easy to hear the growth between the two works. The music closely followed the movement titles: voices of silence, voices of life, voices of conscience. The sound clouds in this work aren’t as transparent as they are in the concerto.

The “silence” movement features hushed strings, often playing harmonics. The second (“life”) is full of conflict, with clumps of instruments grinding against each other. “Conscience” begins with small motifs that bubble up, eventually coming together in an insistent tutti. The work then slowly descends back into a semblance of “silence.”

The Sinfonietta Riga turn in some tremendous performances. Vasks’ music is one of subtle and often delicate changes. The orchestra plays with sympathy and precision. That precision ensures the effect Vasks wants comes through unmarred. There’s nothing to distract the listener from the pure emotion of the music.

This is an SACD recording and for good reason. To truly appreciate Vasks’ music you have to hear all the details. If you don’t buy a physical disc, be sure to download this music at the highest resolution possible. It matters.

Peteris Vasks: Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra
Symphony for Strings “Voices”
Maxim Rysanov, viola and conductor; Sinfonietta Riga
BIS-2443 SACD

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