Viola, Viola (and the Wigmore): new music for troubled times

Last week was a pretty good week for me, musically – quite possibly the best I’ve had since the one that ran from Friday 28 February to Thursday 5 March, which was my last week of live concerts. (For the record, and partly to remind myself because it now feels so long ago, I squeezed in six, starting with Lawrence Power (pictured above) and Pavel Kolesnikov at LSO St Luke’s and ending with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, George Benjamin and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall, with various other luminaries – including Isabelle Faust and the Belcea Quartet in concerts at the Wigmore – in between.) Those were the days…

Well, hopefully, one day, such weeks will return. But let’s get back to last week, which was probably as good as it gets for now, musically, under the circumstances. First, of course, there were the five magnificent Radio 3 lunchtime concerts live-streamed from the Wigmore Hall, still easily available on the Hall’s website and on YouTube, or BBC Sounds if you’re not bothered about seeing the musicians. (But you should watch them if you can; these concerts – and they continue throughout June – were all very strange, very special and very moving. And if you can donate the price of a ticket, you should perhaps do that too, as it will help both the Hall and musicians, many of whom are hit hard by the current crisis.)

The other reason last week was a musical delight was not so much my trawling methodically through my jazz-on-vinyl collection (though that had its highlights) but the arrival of two new CDs I’d bought myself as a treat, each of them consisting of a viola concerto and a symphony, each of them by a living composer known for his spiritual beliefs. Those beliefs (which I respect but don’t share, since I am an atheist) have little or nothing to do with why I purchased the albums; my reasons for buying them are everything to do with the music.

mac 2The CDs are in several respects similar but in others quite different, so I’ll deal with them separately. The first is on Hyperion, and features the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Martyn Brabbins playing James MacMillan’s Symphony No 4 and, with the superb Lawrence Power as soloist, his Viola Concerto. I’ve been a fan of MacMillan’s music since witnessing (yes, I was fortunate enough to be there!) the now famously successful premiere of his The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the 1990 Proms; I’ve caught a fair few premieres since, including the aforementioned Viola Concerto – again with Lawrence Power as soloist and dedicatee, in 2013 – and also count MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross and Stabat Mater among my favourite modern choral works; his Oboe Concerto is rather wonderful too. Anyway, the new CD is very pleasing. The symphony is characteristic of MacMillan’s work: densely layered but melodic, complex but accessible, utterly modern yet imbued with a deep love of musical tradition (it pays tribute to Renaissance Scottish composer Robert Carver), at times tender and intimate, at others monumental and powerful. And the concerto – composed with Power’s virtuosity in mind – is likewise a joy, ranging from contemplative lyricism (especially in the achingly lovely middle movement) to exhilarating dance-like rhythms, with Power characteristically brilliant throughout. Here is a trailer,

vasksThe second CD I bought is by a composer probably rather less well-known in this disunited kingdom, although his music is perhaps, for some, still more accessible than MacMillan’s. Peteris Vasks, now in his seventies, is probably Latvia’s foremost composer; there are recordings of his work by the illustrious likes of Gidon Kremer, Sol Gambetta and Renaud Capuçon. I first discovered him thanks (as so often) to Radio 3 Record Review’s Andrew McGregor, who recommended a recording of Vasks’ Violin Concerto (‘Distant Light’); I was blown away by the piece’s simplicity and serenity. (You can hear it played by Anthony Marwood here.) Likewise with the new BIS recording of the Viola Concerto performed by Maxim Rysanov, who also conducts the Sinfonietta Riga in the other work on the album, the Symphony for Strings (‘Voices’). Like MacMillan, Vasks works impressively with great contrasts, creating music that can feel massive and universal at one moment, meditative and profoundly private the next; but for all its subtlety, power and beauty, the Latvian’s work tends to be less multilayered than MacMillan’s. Where the Scot’s music is often fuelled by his Catholicism, that of Vasks – the son of a Protestant pastor, as it happens – is shaped partly by his ecological concerns and his love of the natural world (the second, longest movement of ‘Voices’ evokes the sounds of birds singing), partly by an affinity with traditional folk music; consequently, there is an almost elemental clarity, even purity to much of his work, which might appeal to admirers of Arvo Pärt or Giya Kancheli. Another reference point might be Sibelius; some of the viola’s slowly ascending lines in the Concerto – beautifully played by Rysanov – are not so very far from the adagio of the Finn’s Violin Concerto. (Himself a violinist and double-bass player, Vasks appears to be especially effective in his writing for strings.) Here is a version of the Concerto transcribed for viola and piano. The music is unapologetically tonal, even Romantic, but it retains a capacity to surprise; like Pärt’s it can feel strangely timeless. And for these troubled times, it can certainly be a balm.

Photo of Lawrence Power by/courtesy of Jack Liebeck.

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