Here are two half hour works: one (the Symphony) now recorded several times over.
The Cello Concerto was first performed on 26 November 1994 in Berlin with Geringas as soloist. This work sings and calls amid an icily unwelcoming world. It is a work of big statements. I can best liken its ambition and achievement to parts of the Finzi Cello Concerto. Geringas has adopted a hallmark vibrato but it does not detract here.
Vasks had seen Yuris Podniecks’ film Homeland which, against the background of the 1990 song festival ‘For Life and Liberty’, showed the 368 choirs from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia singing songs long banned by the Soviets. In May 1990 the streets of Riga echoed with gunfire as the Soviets wrested control from the independents. The inclusion in the film of footage of the struggle was a factor in shaming the Soviet authorities to loosen its ramshackle controls. Shostakovich can be heard in the belligerence of the toccata I with its braying brass. It is interesting that in his notes the composer associates fast music with destruction and so it is with the heated blast and unheeding fury of the two toccata movements. The solo cello is allowed to sing again in Vasks’ natural language of contemplation and healing in the finale. There is something here that sounds like retreat into an interior world far from hopes changed by brutality and from the vitriol in balm. This work now joins the pantheon of great Scandinavian cello concertos alongside those of Kokkonen and Sallinen.
The Symphony for Strings Balsis or Stimmen (Voices) was written in 1990/91 while the struggle was at its peak. Starry nights, the chilly aureole of the moon, wonder and new-made innocence are all there. This is to my knowledge the most Sibelian of his works akin to Sibelius 6 and Suk’s Wenceslas Chorale. Birdsong and triumph meet, not for the first time in Vasks works, in the quarter hour middle movement Voices of Life. The Voice of Conscience finale returns to Shostakovich-like exploration of tragedy. Its searching strong writing crunches and collides but finally seizes the healing of prayer and blessing. It does so not in any narrow religious sense but in communion with a natural order of things – renewal in spring; cleansing in winter.
Good non-technical notes and superb playing from the Riga Philharmonic and Geringas.