Latvian Composers Evoke Baltic Nights

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Perotin, Bach, Eriks Esenvalds, Peteri Vasks: Alina Ibragimova (violin/direction) Britten Sinfonia (Eamonn Dougan conductor), Britten Sinfonia Voices, Barbican Hall, London. 27.2 .2013 (GD)
Perotin: Viderunt omnes (extract)

Bach: Violin ConcertoNo 1 in A minor, BWV 1041
Eriks Esenvalds: AQUA (world premiere)
Bach: Motet – Komm, Jesu, Komm, BWV 229
Peteris Vasks: Violin Concerto ‘Distant Light’

This most innovative programme, which is is also being performed in Cambridge and Norwich, has the evocative title ‘Baltic Nights’. And I mean ‘evocative’ in the real sense of a Baltic night having a luminous and dark glow from sunset on. Anyone who has been to the most Russian of the Baltic States, Latvia, and particularly the capital Riga, will connect with this immediately. This Riga connection is particularly resonant as two of the composers featured, Eriks Esenvalds and Peteris Vasks, grew up and received their initial musical training in Riga – although, having said this, the programme was only strictly ‘Baltic’ in the sense that these two Baltic (Latvian) composers were included.

The programme notes make some interesting, but rather tenuous links, between the two Baltic composers and the great 12th century composer Perotin (of the Notre Dame, Paris School), and Bach – links mostly associated with eternal metaphysical, quasi ethical notions of the hope or ‘promise’ of a distant salvation in troubled times. But despite such tenuous links the two contemporary Latvian compositions seemed to integrate well with the Perotin and Bach works.

There is also a political/social message found in the music of Latvian composers in particular. From 1772 Latvia was dominated by Tsarist imperialism. Then, in the 19th century it came under a strong German influence to do with trading forces. No less a figure than Richard Wagner conducted at the opera house in Riga in the beginning of his career in the 1830s. In the 20th century Latvia came under strong Soviet rule, with a brutal Nazi occupation in 1941, and it was only in 1991 that Latvia was granted full independence. Although there has been recent discord with ultra-nationalists, Latvia is developing its cultural, political autonomy. It is important to note here that in none of the music by Vasks or Esenvades is there any hint of a nationalistic tone or sentiment. Like the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt it is music of great diversity subtended by a deeply lyrical and contemplative tone. Perhaps the Latvian Violinist Gidon Kramer, to whom the Vasks Violin Concerto is dedicated, has aptly captured the tonality of the Baltic States and its music in terms of allowing the ‘imagination free rein in the context of its ‘grey’ landscapes, ‘mists and lakes, lonely seashores, and the possibility of finding concentration and tranquility’ therein.

The concert opened immediately with the dancing rhythms of an extract from the chant ‘Viderunt omnes’ (All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of God…’). Perotin termed the form of this chant ‘organum quadruplum’ ( the addition of a non-parallel fourth voice to the chant). As Eamonn Douglas, Director of the Britten Sinfonia Voices, has noted; this is ‘the first time anyone would have heard four parts singing at the same time… The punch this piece packs provides a visceral and vital start to the programme’. Apart from the unsuitable acoustics of the Barbican Hall, the four-part choir of the Britten Sinfonia Voices, projected a sustained and exuberant rendition of this fascinating music from the late Middle Ages.

Alina Ibragimova led a performance of Bach’s A minor Violin Concerto which captured every element of its rhythmic symmetry in the outer movements and the contrasting ‘Platonic beauty’ of its central Andante Chaconne. Here Ibragimova integrated a wonderfully improvised cantabile over the sustained ostinato bass, as would have been the practice in Bach’s day. She did not so much direct the performance, as initiate a basic tempo register and play ‘with’ the string ensemble. Extra clarity was achieved with one player per part. Predictably Ibragimova and her players deployed the absolute minimum of vibrato, in the ‘period’ manner, and this added to the bracing charm of the fugal finale. She made the most of her decorative flourishes in the dance episodes, which were both stunning in their improvisatory virtuosity, while always integrated with the other players never calling attention to itself outside the parameters of the performance as a whole.

The Eriks Esenwalds piece AQUA was a world premiere. The programme notes tell us that Esenwalds does not consider his music particularly ‘Latvian’ in origin. Rather than taking his inspiration from, say, other Baltic composers like Arvo Pärt, Vasks, Georges Pelecis, or Peteris Plakidis, Esenwald’s music is informed by influences from Prokofiev, Mahler, Ravel, Debussy and Messiaen, among others. In AQUA, with its integration of string orchestra with voices (ten from the Britten Sinfonia Voices), I was particularly reminded of ‘Sirens’ from Debussy’s Nocturnes. Esenwalds projects a wide range of string sounds, from shimmering tremelandos in the top register, to ostinato-like flights of sound in the lower string registers, with a hint of portamento slides. All this is integrated with the ten vocalists, who alternate variously between long cantabile phrases and glissando slides into high and low registers. The conductor of tonight’s performance, Eamonn Dougan, in discussing AQUA has made reference to the amazing choral tradition in the Baltic States. One only has to mention the wonderful acoustics of Riga Cathedral and its choir, where many Baltic composers,and non Baltic composers, like Frank Martin, have heard their music realised. AQUA, lasting around 12 minutes, incorporates sounds from half filled wine glasses (presumably filled with water, another link to the AQUA of the work’s title) which are held by members of the vocal ensemble and played by digitally encircling (rubbing) the rim of the glass. The vibrating sound has a charmingly weird , if rather phantasmagoric, effect. I can even imagine it becoming a kind of popular musical cult classic, along with Gorecki’s Third Symphony. But whether it becomes a popular classic or not, this was a totally engaging 12 minute journey, an exploration of new and strange soundscapes

It was a most engaging idea to include a Bach choral work alongside an instrumental work like the A minor Violin Concerto. One can imagine Bach concerts that would include cantatas interspersed with harpsichord concerti, or some of the Brandenberg concerti. This would work particularly well with Bach, who was constantly transposing themes, or movements from instrumental to choral works, and vice versa. Tonight this was imaginatively contrasted with instrumental and choral works from the two Latvian composers, The wonderful motet ‘Komm, Jesu, komm’ is composed in an earlier motet style; that is with each musical segment modelled on a phrase, and the different parts joined together without their incredible variety in any way jeopardizing their fundamental unity. In this way the slightest musical motif emanates directly from the word it is illustratng from the Biblical, or other related devotional text. Tonight conductor Eamonn Dougan deployed eight singers and three continuo parts. As would have been the liturgical practice in Bach’s time, the motet was performed in a plain style with a lack of any particular embellishment. This follows the function of the motet as accompanying a funeral service. It was originally thought that ‘Komm, Jesu, komm’ was used for the funeral of a professor of theology, but there is no certain evidence for this. Tonight’s performance was most satisfying, not least for its clarity and contour, particularly in the contrapuntal part writing. But, as in the Perotin chant, the dry Barbican acoustic did not suit this elaborately concise choral composition. Ideally, it should be heard in a church, or cathedral acoustic, for which it was specifically composed.

This was the first time I have heard Vasks’ Concerto for Violin and Strings (with the sub-heading ‘Distant Light’). It is a quite complex and concentrated work lasting around 30 minutes without a break, although there is a recognizable meditative first movement, a central more dynamic movement (which can be seen as a quasi scherzo) and a finale with juxtaposing metric registers, 3/8, 2/4 and 5/8, ending with a kind of sustained and quietly intense epilogue. Despite the contrapuntal and rhythmic complexity of the middle section, the music sounds fairly traditional in terms of basic harmonic/tonal structure and content. But Vasks, influencd by Lutoslawski, introduces an ‘aleatory’ element where the soloist improvises in an unprescribed manner, so that each performance will have a different improvisatory register. The concerto also has three solo cadenzas, which make it a particularly taxing work for any performer. Unlike Esenvalds, Vasks’ music is intrinsically informed by traditional Latvian folk music and themes. Overall I had the impression that the concerto wonderfully incorporates traditional themes, both musically and in terms of traditional Latvian folklore, with more advanced and complex contemporary musical themes, including elements of bi-tonality, abrupt tonal/rhythmic shifts and the already mentioned sequences of ‘aleotary’ improvisation.

One could also mention the remarkable range of textures, dynamic contrasts, and rhythmic/lyrical juxtapositions Vasks achieves with a small string orchestra. Vasks is not afraid to supplement the work with a kind of ecological/ethical message. He is particularly concerned with the interaction between man and nature, man’s place in nature (an almost Heideggerian inflection here) and the need for people to regain a ‘spiritual’ dimension. In teleological terms I suppose this is what Vasks means in the sub-heading ‘Distant Light As Vasks remarks: ‘My intention is to provide food for the soul and this is what I peach in my work’ – and this is all in the context of the historical suffering of the Latvian people. I am not sure whether a purely musical work can project this strongly ethical message, but this concerto probably comes very close to reflecting at least some of these ideals in its moments of intense lyricism and contemplative meditation.

I am sure that the work’s dedicatee, Gidon Kremer, projects a total empathy with these sentiments/ideals, and predictably one senses this empathy with Alina Ibragimova. Just experiencing her cadenzas and improvisatory playing was an intense and rewarding musical experience. There were a couple of fluffs, particularly in the top registers, but I think this ‘human’ aspect is inevitable in a work of such technical and emotional complexity. One could even venture further and say that this is an integral part of the innovatory style of the work. Needless to say the rapport between Ibragimova and the strings of the Britten Sinfonia was absolute and compelling. Composition of the concerto was finished in1997, and I can see it becoming recognised as one of the most important violin concertos of the 20th century. It is fervently hoped that Ibragimova will soon record the concerto with the Britten Sinfonia. After the concerto Vasks himself came on to the stage to affectionately embrace Ibragimova and express his thanks to the orchestra. It was quite a moving gesture in its obvious sincerity.

Geoff Diggines