Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Latvia VI: Pēteris Vasks, the Main Man

I'm sure there are many more fascinating Latvian composers out there, and I will keep my eye out for them; however, you will have noticed that one Latvian composer has been missing. It's his time now. Yes, it's the popular contemporary composer Pēteris Vasks (b.1946), above - whose music has spread far and wide, carrying with it the good name of Latvia.

The music of Pēteris Vasks is in a lot of ways the embodiment of so many of the recent trends in Latvian music which I've been trying to outline. It isn't very radical. You could call it conservative even. (Aren't labels annoying?) When it first began getting noticed here in the U.K., I saw review after review slamming the composer's music as empty and reactionary. One headline (if I remember rightly in The Sunday Times) read "Vacuous Vasks". Another critic (I think in the BBC Music Magazine) called his music something like "second-hand Pärt". Yes, even Pärt wasn't widely considered 'a good thing' back then!

This probably resulted (in part) from the general critical antipathy at the time (twenty years ago) towards tonal, non-modernist contemporary music - or at least the kind that wasn't American-style minimalism. Twenty years on and that has all changed. Those critics of 1990 didn't realise that their confidence in what was the 'right' sort of contemporary music to be writing was the last gasp of certainty for an attitude which had prevailed for over thirty years. Composers like Pēteris Vasks helped lead the way in finishing off the old avant-garde regime. Tonality, consonance, tunefulness and writing audience-friendly music that aimed to touch the listener's soul were back and they've swept onwards in this age of globalisation. Whether that's an unmitigated 'good thing' is another question. I'd be happier with as much plurality as possible - the lion of the avant-garde lying down with the lamb of the post-avant-garde, both of them thriving and confident. That's what we now have to some extent, but the avant-garde lion does seem to be being gradually driven out of the pride, leaving all the uneaten lambs behind baaing out their sweet little C major motets. OK, that's enough of that metaphor!! - and more than enough philosophising!! (I might start drawing analogies between all this and the fall of the Soviet Union if I'm not careful. I'm not Richard Taruskin, so I'd better not bother.)

Of course, another reason for that critical disdain (twenty years ago) could have been that the critics simply didn't like the music they were hearing and thought it wasn't very good. There's always that possibility. Taste is very important in music. The music of Vasks won't be to everyone's taste. The music of any of these Latvian composers won't appeal to everyone. I can imagine many of you actively disliking or being bored to death by some of these composers. (Others I find it harder to imagine).

I'm sure there must have been a radical avant-garde in Latvia - indeed, I've read that Vasks started out writing such music and there are traces of it in his music - but it seems to have disappeared without leaving that much of a trace behind. Has it really though? Or is this just a case of looking where the light is? If YouTube and the non-Latvian music world (especially record companies) chose not to bother with it, does that mean it doesn't still exist? I can't tell from here in snowy England.

(Update: Answer, yes there is an avant-garde. It has been growing in the last decade. A later post will introduce some of its leading lights.)

Down to the music. A fairly early (and popular) example of Pēteris Vasks's music is the string orchestral piece Cantabile from 1979. Here we have fully composed, tonal sections of music which strike a strong Mahlerian note, singing out their melodic lines with heavy-laden harmonies and undisguised emotion. These alternative with the sort of 'controlled chance'/'aleatory' passages we find in, say, the music of Lutosławski - though they sound more more 'added on' or 'imposed' (like cries from within or without). This isn't music that aims to appeal to critics and academics. It is aimed squarely at you, the listener, and your emotions. So is Musica dolorosa, written in memory of the composer's sister. The Mahlerian angst couldn't be more directly communicated. And Vasks's Lauda speaks straight to the heart in the other direction, aiming to lift up your spirits.

You will recognise as Lauda grows and develops that it is using folk melodies to build its climaxes. The piece aimed to raised the Latvian spirit too. Folk melody is an element Vasks readily embraces. His gentle, elegiac Cor Anglais Concerto breathes the air of rural Latvia. The Violin Concerto (Distant Light) has folk elements too, though they take their place in a 40-minute span that laments, cries out and consoles.

As in several of the other recent Latvian composers we've encountered, a strong dose of eclecticism can be found in the music of Pēteris Vasks and parts of this Violin Concerto might remind you at various moments of all manner of other composers. Such eclecticism may not be to your tastes. An uncharitable critic from The Times (in the early 1990s) wrote this (of another Vasks piece):
"From this Latvian composer came the mixture so often peddled around the Baltic: spoonfuls of 'holy minimalism', sprinklings of folk song, a visitation from Shostakovich's ghost." 
I can see what he means. That said, holy minimalism can be good. So can sprinklings of folk song. And I wouldn't mind a visitation from Shostakovich's ghost. (I'd like to thank him).

There's a vast amount of Vasks out there in Youtubeland, so I'm going to finish this post here and let you hunt it out for yourselves.

As ever on these journeys, I've found a lot of wonderful, unfamiliar composers and many magical pieces of music. I've enjoyed a huge amount of it, even if I've never quite come across a masterpiece  - or a composer - to place in the highest tier of the Museum of Musical Greatness. Latvian music remains largely hidden from the world, despite Vasks, but there are so many treats to be had from exploring it - in all its variety - that you would be depriving yourselves (as music lovers) if you didn't give the links on these posts a thorough clicking!

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