The veteran Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks is well represented on recordings and his violin concerto Tālā Gaisma, Distant Light in English, has been recorded at least half a dozen times. It was written for Gidon Kremer and his youth orchestra Kremerata Baltica in 1996. The soloist here, Daniel Rowland, writes in the interesting sleevenote that it was the first work of Vasks that he heard and was very pleased when the composer agreed to join him in his Stiftfestival in the Netherlands in August 2019. They worked together on a number of his pieces and ended with a concert whose live recording appears here.
Distant Light is in eight sections which play continuously. The solo violin is accompanied by a small string orchestra. It begins very quietly at a high pitch on the solo violin which leads to a long, winding lyrical line with a shimmering accompaniment. There is then the first of three cadenzas which become progressively more virtuosic. The next section begins in the low bass with the violin also in its low register. There follows a faster section, then the second cadenza and then a burst of energy in a dance. An anguished passage has some dissonant noises and the final cadenza before the conclusion returns to the mood of the opening. The idiom is not very different from that of the Estonian Arvo Pärt and I was also reminded of John Tavener’s violin concerto Lalishri. The violin writing is occasionally reminiscent of Brahms, whose concerto perhaps Vasks looked at before writing his own; it is, of course, none the worse for that. It seems to me clearly a masterpiece, with a balance maintained between the serene atmosphere and more challenging material.
The other works here are also fine but less complex in their moods. Lonely Angel is also described as a violin concerto and was also written for Kremer, but it is a simpler, shorter work in one movement; compare Chausson’s Poème for example. The composer wrote about it: ‘I saw an angel, flying over the world; the angel looks at the world’s condition with grieving eyes, but an almost imperceptible, loving touch of the angel’s wings brings comfort and healing. This piece is my music after the pain.’ It is almost entirely in the meditative, ecstatic tone which is only part of the idiom of Distant Light.
Plainscapes is a choral work accompanied simply by violin and cello. There are no words. Vasks explained that it was nature music, inspired by his native Latvia, which is flat and where one can see the horizon and the stars in the sky. At the climax there is what sounds like actual birdsong.
Dona nobis pacem is for mixed choir and string orchestra. It does not, as one might expect, set the whole of the Agnus Dei, from which that phrase comes, but only those three words, repeated again and again in waves of sound which build up and then break off suddenly at the climax. (Vaughan Williams’s work of the same name, on the other hand, is much longer and sets a number of texts.)
The performances here seem very fine, and the involvement of Vasks himself ensures their authenticity. In Distant Light Daniel Rowland dispenses with a conductor and leads the orchestra himself. Thomas Carroll and Benjamin Goodson do the honours in the other works. The recording is warm and glowing; this is a live recording but no applause is included. There are other recordings of all the works here but not in this combination. Warmly recommended.