Vestards Shimkus came across as a pianist of little fear. His programme alone would suggest that. For any composer to dedicate an entire half of a solo concert to his own composition would, in the immortal words of Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister, be “extremely courageous”. Yet the gamble paid off handsomely, as Shimkus delivered a riveting rendition of his own composition Dreamscapes: Nine Etudes for Piano, keeping audience and himself on the edge of their seats.

Vestard Shimkus © Ars Produktion
Vestard Shimkus
© Ars Produktion

The symmetry of the programme would have made a medieval numerologist very happy; the nine (a number both mystical and perfect, the triple trinity) Chorale Preludes of Bach-Busoni balancing perfectly the composer’s own nine etudes. Shimkus, dressed casually in an open-necked grey shirt with sleeves rolled up, rather demystified that interpretation in his informal chat with the audience before beginning the concert – there are nine etudes because he couldn't think up of any more! 

The key challenge for the pianist in attempting Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach’s Chorale Preludes is that on the organ the notes of the chorale don’t diminish in time, whereas on the piano there is an instant dissipation of sound as soon as the hammer strikes the string. Shimkus approach was to strive determinedly after the chorale melody. At times, as in no. 9 Jeus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 665 and in no. 4 Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gemein BWV 734a with their rapid inner filigree, this led to Shimkus forcing the projection of the chorale melody at the expense of shaping it.

Launching into the opening Chorale Prelude “Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist” with some vigour, Shimkus immediately proved himself to be a virtuosic pianist, striding confidently through the chorale in octaves while the busy runs were tossed off with consummate ease.

Sensitivity of touch and warmth of tone were in evidence especially in no. 2 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 140 and in no. 5 Ich ruf’zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639 where Shimkus unfurled each phrase so that they felt inevitable.

In the second half, the key to Shimkus’ own etudes was in both the general title Dreamscapes and their individual titles. According to the composer, they consist of nine dreams where “the musical narrative of each piece of this cycle is immediately happening instead of being steadily shaped”. If the individual titles themselves weren’t clear enough, Shimkus elucidated further at the start of the second half. No. 2 called “Snakes” portrays his dream of being surrounded by snakes but then as the fear of the serpents’ stings dies away, he begins to appreciate the beauty of their writhing coils and the patterns that they create.

Imaginative in their conception, the etudes really came to life with such authoritative playing. Attacking vigorously the jagged rhythmic two-figure motif which opened no. 1 “Floodgates”, Shimkus suggested the rapid flow of water with sparkling filigree. The aforementioned “Snakes” was an impressive piece of bravura whose scalic passages sped round the piano before disappearing in a puff in the high registers of the piano.

There were moments of glistening beauty as well in “Floating Stars” and in “Forgotten Dream”, the latter highlighting its dedication to JS Bach with Baroque ornamentation and a prelude-like melody. None of the etudes were short of atmosphere, whether it was the lugubrious chromatic chords of “Silverdark Trees” or the hallucinatory quality of the shimmering trills of “Parallel Dream-time”.

Given his huge technique, Shimkus didn’t shirk in taking on the virtuosic demands in quite a few of the etudes, though this was always subservient to the musical image. Octaves rained down in the aptly named “Tsunami” while the final etude “Bullets” had the pianist-composer scampering around the entire range of the piano at breakneck speed. This latter possessed something of the character of Prokofiev’s Toccata from his Seventh Sonata; a restless driven tempo, complex rhythms, vicious syncopations and repeated percussive, techno-like idioms. It ended spectacularly and explosively leaving the audience gasping.

As Latvia celebrates its centenary of independence later this year, I have been very impressed at the vibrant, musical traditions of this country. This trip has highlighted  successful contemporary composers (both young and old), a world class choral tradition and an exciting, youthful piano and organ scene. Ad multos annos.


Andrew Larkin’s press trip was funded by Latvia Concerts.