“I know what I like and I like what I know.” Right? No, wrong! Even after a lifetime of exploring the musical highways and byways, there’s always a chance you might come across that half-hidden fork in the way ahead, “The Road not Taken” in Robert Frost’s phrase, which can offer new delights. Hearing the music of Pēteris Vasks live for the first time is like encountering the familiar and the strange at one and the same time. And as so often with unexpected musical surprises, you are drawn in. There are the folk music influences which group him together with Vaughan Williams, Bartók and Lutosławski, but then come the clusters and aleatoric diversions which take you closer to Ligeti, while the hymn-like passages of serenity propel you towards the spiritual world of Górecki and Pärt. As we peer with more than a little apprehension into the 21st century, Vasks himself has a vital message to give. “Most people today no longer possess beliefs, love and ideals. My intention is to provide food for the soul and this is what I preach in my works.” His Symphony for Strings, given by the conductorless 22 string players of Kremerata Baltica (but with their founder and spiritus rector Gidon Kremer in the audience), is a half-hour work in three connected movements (Voices of Silence, Voices of Life, Voices of Conscience).

Iveta Apkalna © Daniel Dittus
Iveta Apkalna
© Daniel Dittus

The piece is slow to reveal itself. It began almost inaudibly, the velvet-toned cellos and basses in their deepest register supporting the silken upper strings as they moved imperceptibly into territory familiar from the opening movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, the chirruping of woodland birds providing a pointed contrast to the shimmering textures. The emotional charge comes from the sustained crescendos, here heightened by the superb ensemble of these players. Intonation and inner balances were impeccably maintained, while at the outset of the second movement they captured the translucency of fresh dew on early-morning grass in the filigree delicacy of the scoring, which soon gave way to surges of sound akin to a tsunami, crashing dissonances that overwhelmed in their intensity. The final movement had a Mahlerian depth, replete with tingling sonorities in its opening threnody, and at its close the strings moved increasingly apart, exquisitely ethereal at one end, groaning at the other, with plucked double-basses signalling a heartbeat. This is mysterious, mystic, magical music, and moreover with the power to move.

At first sight there might not have seemed much to connect the works of three Baltic composers with Bach. However, those other-worldly effects that Vasks is capable of conjuring up were echoed in the Keyboard Concerto no. 1 in D minor that followed. When the harpsichord is the solo instrument, there is always the danger that it will be swamped by the strings; when the organ is involved, the balance issues are so often reversed. Iveta Apkalna, titular organist at the Elbphilharmonie, chose a celestial-sounding registration which gave a silvery quality to the performance, most markedly in the slow movement’s dialogue between organ and strings.

Only in the final work, a concerto for organ, strings and percussion, entitled Okeāna balss (Sound of the Ocean), by the Estonian Ēriks Ešenvalds, was Apkalna, its dedicatee, able to unleash the full power of the 5000-pipe Elbphilharmonie organ. Seated at the four-manual digital instrument, in the space normally occupied by the conductor’s rostrum, she delivered a ringing opening statement that sounded suspiciously like the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D minor “gone wrong”. Cast in a traditional set of three movements, the material includes big dramatic statements, the organ rumbling and groaning like a gigantic whale moving up from the oceanic depths towards the surface, but also music of the stars, a sense of cosmic complexity suggested in the organ’s highest register and in the contributions of the dazzling solo first violin both in the slow movement and in the finale. Bach was nowhere near a million miles away.

Before that came a short piece by the former Estonian Minister of Culture, Lepo Sumera. His Symphōnē for orchestra and percussion was clearly influenced by the minimalist school, a mesmerising continuum of multiple layering that slowly sucked you into a vortex, with a ferocious central section in which the upper strings scythed their way through the textures with mechanistic precision.

The Sumera and Ešenvalds works framed an arrangement made by Kremer from Busoni’s transcription of Bach's Violin partita no. 2 in D minor: Chaconne. It has to be said that this meandered. The recorded piano at the start and recorded violin just before the final statement, the many outstanding individual contributions, the waves of polyphony and the frequent quickenings and slowings as well as dynamic shadings, did little to make up for the cohesion and concentration of the original. But the Vasks will live in my memory for quite some time.

*****