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Peteris Vasks: String Quartets Nos. 1-3

Vasks / Navarra Quartet
Release Date: 11/09/2010 
Label:  Challenge   Catalog #: 72365   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Peteris Vasks
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 13 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

VASKS String Quartets: No. 1 (rev. version); No. 2, “Summer Tunes”; No. 3 Navarra Qrt CHALLENGE (76:48)

What is Dubins doing reviewing a recording of works by modernist, Minimalist, avant-garde-ist P?teris Vasks? A legitimate question, given the reviewer’s well-publicized aversion to such composers. But readers with long memories may recall one of the contributor’s first entries in Read more Fanfare 27: 2, a review of Vask’s Symphony No. 2 and Violin Concerto, “Distant Lights,” in which he found the music to be sweeping in gesture, unabashedly romantic in feeling, and filled with emotion and drama. The question posed at the end was whether Vasks had staying power, and whether we’d still be listening to him five years later.

Well, here it is, a bit more than five years later, and in the interim more evidence was introduced at trial and the jury was sent off to deliberate. So far, it seems, a unanimous verdict has yet to be reached. In 32:2, Colin Clarke, reviewing a Hänssler Classics release of Vasks’s works, was moved by music that speaks with involvement; while in the same issue, reviewing an MDG CD of Vasks’s works, Peter Burwasser felt that none of the music was easy listening, nor was it intended to be.

Admittedly, my only two previous exposures to Vasks have come through his large-scale orchestral works, the aforementioned Second Symphony and Violin Concerto, and four years later, in 30:5, his Third Symphony and Cello Concerto, which impressed me even more than the earlier release. This was my first encounter with the composer’s chamber music, and I have to say that I found much of it of a rare and strange hypnotic beauty that washed over me like a cleansing wave of some ancient primordial sea.

The three quartets on the disc are presented in reverse order, opening with the String Quartet No. 3, composed in 1995. This is not the last of Vasks’s quartets; he has written five so far, and No. 4 was recorded by the Kronos Quartet for Nonesuch in 2002. By whatever “ism” one wishes to define Vasks, his music is that of a romantic and a spiritual seeker. The Third Quartet opens with a movement marked simply and unassumingly Moderato, hardly Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” effusion. Yet not just in the feeling of holiness—of closeness to and direct communication with the deity—but in the way the instruments are written for—the way the voices are spaced and move against each other—this movement comes closer to Beethoven’s famous “Holy Song of Thanksgiving” than anything else I think I’ve heard. It’s simple and straightforward, composed of just a small number of repeating rising and falling gestures that continuously overlap and overlay each other, much like in the Beethoven, and yet it’s of an almost unbearable beauty.

The second movement (Allegro energico) is of a Bartókian rhythmic drive and force, but it’s not the dance of Bartók’s Hungarian peasants. There’s something more primitive, perhaps pagan about this music; and surprisingly, it’s not dissonant in the way that Bartók is. Much of Vasks’s writing is in unisons and octaves, so that there is no harmony, just rhythm; and when harmony does emerge, it’s primarily of a consonant, euphonious variety, dependent on thirds and sixths, and seeming to move in fairly traditional tonal progressions.

The third movement (Adagio), beautiful as it is, strikes me as a bit too uncomfortably close to Shostakovich. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Vasks’s background. The piece is a long, slow dirge or lament that begins quietly, rises to a searing climax, and subsides back into the gloom.

The concluding movement (Moderato—Allegro—Andante—Moderato) is the most modernistic, with sudden wrenching tempo changes and some coruscating dissonant passages. While the music may not be all that difficult to come to terms with on its own, I’ll admit that I found it a bit hard to understand how this movement relates to what precedes it or, for that matter, what it’s even doing in this particular quartet. There may be some attempt to fuse elements from the earlier movements but, if so, it’s not easily grasped.

The Second Quartet dates from 1984 and bears the title “Summer Tunes.” Its three movements are successively titled “Coming into Bloom,” “Birds,” and “Elegy.” To what extent Vasks has been influenced by Messiaen, I can’t say for sure, but nature sounds, especially of the ornithological variety, permeate this music. Eerie fluting and fluttering sounds presage an ostinato drone that sounds almost like something by Philip Glass in Minimalist mode. As in the first movement of the Third Quartet, Vasks casts a hypnotic spell, but this is not the Abrahamic deity the music seeks to commune with; it’s the ibis, the Egyptian bird god, Thoth.

The second movement pursues the avian theme. To the fluting and fluttering are now added clucking and pecking as feathers fly. According to the booklet notes, this “ornithological carnival” contains aleatoric passages. Perhaps the word “carnival” should remind us that birds are contentious and covetous carnivores, a realization that surely didn’t escape Vasks as his rapacious raptors strip flesh from bone.

All that remains for the third movement is the molting, as the now balding birds weep for their lost plumage. I won’t be writing to Vasks to ask him if this was the imagery he intended, for this is music that can mean anything you want it to or nothing at all. It purports to be music inspired by nature and the sounds of birdsong. But ultimately, appreciating it lies in responding to its sound and color effects.

The String Quartet No. 1 is both the earliest and the latest work on the disc, for it was written in 1977 but revised in 1997. It is also the most avant-garde of the three and, frankly, quite unpleasant to listen to. This, I’m afraid, is where Vasks and I part company. Note author Paul Janssen describes the first-movement Intrada as “a nightmare in which all of the strings have lost their way.” I’ll put it more bluntly. It’s four minutes of four instruments making ugly noises. Bartók and Shostakovich reappear in the second movement, titled “Sonata.” Janssen uses words like “frenetic” and “rebellious” to describe it. It’s not pretty, but after the assault on the eardrums of the first movement, it’s a bit less repellant. The last movement, “Melodia,” begins on a conciliatory note. The Vasks of the shimmering sustained cantilena is back, but not to stay. The peace and quiet are soon interrupted by violent outbursts, and finally more tweeting and twittering of birds as the movement fades into nothingness.

The Navarra Quartet is yet another of those very young, eager, and exceptionally talented ensembles that seem to be sprouting up everywhere like mushrooms after a spring rain. This one appears to be U.K.-based, but its Web site is out of date, for it lists a different first violinist from the one named in this quite recent July 2010 recording. As of this writing, the current album is not listed at ArkivMusic, but it is available at Amazon.

It’s hard to imagine the Navarra’s essaying of the Second and Third Quartets being equaled or bettered by any other ensemble any time soon. There’s nothing to be said about the performance of the First Quartet, for only the composer can tell us if this is what he intended. This may not be the best place to start your exploration of Vasks—I think the symphonies and concertos are more accessible and perhaps more satisfying as musical experiences—but for those already familiar with the composer’s style and for the more adventurous, definitely recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

String Quartet No. 3 by Peteris Vasks
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 1995 
Venue:  FWL STudios, Leipzig, Germany 
Length: 6 Minutes 13 Secs. 
String Quartet No. 2 "Sommer Gesänger" by Peteris Vasks
Period: Modern 
Written: 1984 
Venue:  FWL STudios, Leipzig, Germany 
Length: 7 Minutes 27 Secs. 
String Quartet No. 1 by Peteris Vasks
Period: Modern 
Written: 1977 
Venue:  FWL STudios, Leipzig, Germany 
Length: 18 Minutes 3 Secs. 

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