14 August 2015

Peteris Vasks: String Quartet No.1

For many fans of Latvian music, Peteris Vasks is quite the formidable character. Renowned for his simple but striking beauty. His works post-Latvia's regained independence have been defined by his incorporation of folk melodies, programmatic use of extended techniques, and musical and melodic clarity. The emotive powers of Vasks's oeuvre is quite unique from the 'group' of composers he is often tied up with (Henryk M. Gorecki, Arvo Part, John Taverner). Part of his uniqueness, I believe, is linked to his compositional education. Because of the regime at the time, being a Methodist, Vasks was not allowed to study in his native Latvia. This led him to emigrate across the border to Lithuania where he studied composition under the guidance of Valentin Utkin

As this blog aims to be an eye opener to the Baltic world, I wanted to introduce one of Peteris's earlier works. His early music is heavily influenced by the experiments and trends of the Warsaw Autumn Festival. This means the music of the time draws a lot of influences from sonoristic music like that of Krzysztof Penderecki. He also incorporated a lot of controlled aleatoricism like in the works of Witold Lutoslawski. 

The work I wanted to to introduce is Peteris Vasks's first string quartet.Written while he was living in Vilnius, the work became the first of five major string quartets. Each of these works have a wonderful uniqueness that can equal many leading composers of the 20th Century. The first quartet is intriguing for many reasons. The three movement work tackles the long tradition of the form, as well as challenging it with many contemporary ideas. The opening movement is extremely violent and powerful, with its hard striking bow strokes and extended techniques. The glissandi and extreme changes in dynamics keep the listener second guessing. The violence regularly disappears into still chords which suddenly explode again with an extra level of fury.

The second movement is a violent sonata, whose rapid circling motifs are very reminiscent of Bartok. The driving moto perpetuo leads to a dramatic chorale, full of angst and longing. In many ways this movement is the most traditional, not just because of its use of sonata form, and likeness to Bartok; simply because this movement uses no extended techniques or contemporary textural devices. The tension of the movement dissipates and leads to a solo for the cello. The cellist is able to use the gut-wrenching melody to draw all the emotive powers it can muster. The climax of the melody ushers in a recapitulation to the opening sequences. 

The final movement, simple titled 'Melodia' uses circling aleatoricism to underpin a beautiful melody first played by the viola, then by the first violin. The simply beauty created by these modern textures was probably a harbinger of where his music was heading. But after all the violence and intensity of the previous movements, the finale is a welcome relief and has the sensation of an even greater beauty. This recording by the Navarra Quartet really highlights the qualities of each movement and played with such astounding beauty and technical prowess. Their recordings of the second and third quartet is to be commended and I highly recommend giving them a listen.

The album can be found here: Vasks - String Quartet No. 1

All information gathered from the Schott webpage, Peteris Vasks wikipedia page, and the recording came from Spotify. 

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