Thursday, 19 May 2016

Love from Latvia

Latvia's leading composer Pēteris Vasks has been in Cardiff for the last week for a large 70th birthday retrospective of his work at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Last night's concert at All Saints' Church in Penarth was devoted to a searing performance of his Piano Quartet by Ensemble MidVest (from Denmark) and also marked John Metcalf's (the festival's artistic director)  forthcoming 70th birthday with incandescent performances of three of his works (the finest performances of them I've heard). Here they both are cutting a birthday cake after the performance. 

I remember first hearing his music back in 1996 when the whole festival was devoted to music from the Baltic States (the first major exposure to this then unknown music in Britain). It was already a hugely rich selection of fantastic new pieces, but the one piece that absolutely blew me away was Vasks’s Symphony for Strings, Stimmen. Twenty years later there's a richer legacy of work. On the first night of the festival (10 May) I was lucky to be able to interview him (with our wonderful interpreter Andy Taurins) and hear about the constraints under which he worked as a composer until well into his forties under the Soviet Regime. 

Before the Second World War, Latvia, rather like Wales, had only a limited tradition of composition. From the 1940s until Perestroika, their composers had limited access to developments in the west and laboured under Soviet political pressure. They had to invent for themselves a recognizable national musical voice and probably, beyond developments in Poland, had little access to the west. Yesterday morning Vasks gave a fascinating interview for the composition students at Cardiff University where he talked about only being able to access new music occasionally via Radio Vienna. What comes through his music and from the man himself is a huge generosity of spirit. For students more used to listening to lectures about row rotations, hearing a composer declare that the most important thing in his music was love was probably quite a new experience. 

John Kehoe's description of his music written now about twenty years ago still sums up his approach: "Vasks will frequently abandon technical explanations in favour of nature imagery, the grandeur of a mighty forest, the free flight of birds and their song. These are matters very close to his heart, and of these things, or rather of their spirit, his music speaks." 

Vasks's new Viola Concerto was premiered at BBC Hoddinott Hall tomorrow night by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (20 May at 7.30pm);I interviewed him and the soloist, Maxim Rysanov.. 

You can see more details of this year's Vale of Glamorgan Festival here

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