Vasks Plainscapes

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COMPOSERS: Peteris Vasks
LABELS: Ondine
ALBUM TITLE: Vasks Plainscapes
WORKS: Plainscapes; our Mother’s Names; Birth; Silent Songs; The Tomtit;s Message; Summer; The Sad Mother; Small; Warm Holiday
PERFORMER: Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava
CATALOGUE NO: ODE11942

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The so-called Hill of Song, a large mound of trees, statuary and rituals, rising up some kilometres outside Riga, is testimony to the place of poetry and song in shaping and maintaining Latvia’s identity, unity and independence. The choral works of Pe¯teris Vasks form a not dissimilar monument. And this, the second volume from Ondine, focuses on superb performances by the Latvian Radio Choir of the secular side of his trance-inducing, largely homophonic four-part compositions, regarded by Vasks himself as ‘food for the soul’.

For years, when the country was a Soviet republic, Latvia’s own songs were very much Silent Songs: the name of a group of Vasks’s settings of the poet Knuts Skujenieks, himself seven years in the Gulag. As simple and spare as the texts themselves, these songs are hushed and intimate. Plainscapes, from 2002, has no text: in its vocalise and violin and cello solos, this 16-minute work seems the apotheosis of Vasks’s tendency to treat voices as slow-woven threads in a tapestry of abstract sound. It’s a mirage of glissandos, wingbeats, and ancient, atavistic song, both human and avian.

The newest work here, Birth (2008), for mixed choir and percussion, is likely to send Vasks fans into ecstasies of delight in the pseudo-Shamanic voice-effects of its celebration of the Sun.

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Hilary Finch