The championing, by both ECM and by Dennis Russell Davies, of Giya Kancheli has playeda significant role in increasing public awareness of that Georgian composer's output.Now the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, under Davies's baton, turns its attention toanother musician emerging from the wreckage of the old Soviet Union, a composer whocites Kancheli as a role model and formative influence, and whose own music alsoattempts to provide a voice for exiles of the spirit.
Peteris Vasks, arguably Latvia's leading modern composer, has said, "I've always wantedmy music played wherever people are distressed...in hospitals, in prisons, in overcrowdedtrains and buses - I'm not writing just for the classical concert hall". His work is intended to supply a consoling function, also for its author: "I don't haveto dream up the suffering. I'm in the middle of it. My entire family, too. My nation."
Born in 1946 in Aizpute, Vasks, the son of a priest, grew up in an occupied Latviain what he describes as an atmosphere of "total control", distinguished by "censorship,fear and lies": "There was a ban on professional practice and a deliberate levellingof individual differences. The churches were converted into warehouses and dance halls."He vowed early on that he would extend his father's work - praising God and extendinga helping hand - into the realm of sound. "To my mind", Vasks has said, "every honest composer searches for a way out of the crises of his time - toward affirmation,towards faith."
After early studies in violin and piano, Vasks settled on the double-bass as his instrumentof choice. From 1964 he studied bass at the Lithuanian Music Academy in Vilnius andsubsequently played it with the Latvian National Opera and Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra as well as with the Lithuanian Philharmonic. It was during his studies inVilnius that he first encountered contemporary Polish music, and felt an affinitywith the emotional component of the compositions of Lutoslawski, Penderecki and Gorecki.Those composers remain part of a pantheon of permanent influences that also includesKancheli, Messiaen, Sibelius, Mahler and George Crumb.
Vasks has called himself a "saddened optimist" but confesses that Musica dolorosais the most bleak of all his compositions. The piece reflects both on a personaltragedy - the death of Vasks' sister - and on the political oppression suffered byhis countrymen.
If we can believe current accounts - which is not necessarily easy given the shiftingand subjective nature of Shostakovich studies: few biographies of this century havebeen so extensively and repeatedly revised - the great composer wrote his Eight String Quartet, of which the Chamber Symphony op 110bisis an orchestrated extension, in the wake of his "self-inflicted" political crisisof 1960. After years of stubborn resistance, Shostakovich finally caved in and joinedthe communist party. In a fit of self-loathing and self-pity he wrote - in threedays - an "ideologically flawed" quartet intended, according to a letter to musicologistJakob Glikman, to serve as his own epitaph: "You could even write on the cover 'Dedicatedto the memory of the author of this quartet'(...) The quartet makes use of themesfrom my work and from the revolutionary song 'Tormented by Grievous Bondage'." GerardMcBurney notes, in the CD booklet, that "whether or not, as some friends later claimed,the composer at this time was planning to end his own life, it certainly seems that this work is a funeral elegy for that part of him which died when he agreed to dosomething which went profoundly against his own convictions."
The wide range of expression in the quartet encouraged several musicians to attemptarrangements for string orchestra; at least half a dozen such arrangements circulatedin the early 1960s. Shostakovich gave his approval to the version by the conductorand viola player Rudolf Barshai and also authorized its retitling as the Chamber Symphony. It is the Barshai orchestration that is played by the Stuttgarter Kammerorchesteron the present recording.
Alfred Schnittke's Trio Sonatawas created in circumstances comparable to those from which Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartetemerged. Written a quarter century after Shostakovich's piece, the Trio Sonata took shape at a time of imminent personal crisis, albeit a crisis entirely beyondSchnittke's control. Furthermore, the music was again enlarged for string orchestra- and by a viola playing associate of the composer's: Russian musical history wasindeed repeating itself.
Some commentators go still further, suggesting that in the Trio SonataSchnittke revealed an awareness of the devastating illness that was about to incapacitatehim, and that - as with Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet- the composer is offering an "epitaph" of sorts. Within weeks of the Trio Sonata's premiere Schnittke suffered the first of a series of strokes that have necessitatedfrequent hospitalization through the 1990s. Gerard McBurney: "The Trio itself maybe seen as a prophetic work. It is music which strongly suggests an elegiac farewellto the past, as if the composer knew he were facing impending and radical change; andwith its unusually compressed phrase structure and its many laconic turns and 'dyingfalls', it looks forward to the new stripped down musical language that Schnittkewould later evolve as he struggled to rebuild his physical and artistic strength."
Commissioned in its original form by the Alban Berg Foundation for the Berg centenaryof 1985, the Trio Sonatawas developed by Schnittke almost simultaneously with other major pieces, includingthe First Cello Concertoand the Viola Concerto(the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, with Davies and with Kim Kashkashian as soloist,delivers a highly acclaimed interpretation of the latter on ECM New Series 1471).
If the Shostakovich Chamber Symphonyis fairly faithful to the proportional dynamics of the string quartet that is itskernel, Yuri Bashmet's arrangement of the Trio Sonataheightens the original's sense of power as it lifts the piece out of its "confessional"medium and supplants "chamber" intimacy with orchestral drive. In emotional tonethe work bears out the judgement of English critic Andrew Clements that "much ofSchnittke's later work keeps a fearful eye on the apocalypse".
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One of the more innovative conductors in the classical realm, Dennis Russell Davieshas succeeded in challenging and inspiring audiences on both sides of the Atlanticwith an exceptionally wide-ranging repertoire. Since 1980, he has lived in Germanybut maintained an active presence also on the North American scene as regular guest conductorwith the major orchestras and opera houses of New York, Chicago, and Boston, andas Music Director of the American Composers Orchestra - which he co-founded in 1975- at Carnegie Hall. In September 1996 Davies assumed the position of Chief Conductorof the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, in addition to continuing as Chief Conductorof the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Davies studied at the Juilliard School, graduating with degreesin piano, composition, and musicology. In 1968, together with Luciano Berio, he foundedthe Juilliard Ensemble and has continued to champion contemporary music since then. His close working associations with composers including Berio, John Cage, Lou Harrison,Giya Kancheli, Philip Glass, Hans Werner Henze and Francis Thorne - to name but afew - have provided an important catalyst for the enriching of concert repertoryin general.
Dennis Russell Davies's recordings for the New Series include four albums of the musicof Arvo Pärt, three albums of Kancheli compositions, Kim Kashkashian's Hindemith/Penderecki/Brittenrecital Lachrymaeand the Mozart Piano Concertos with Keith Jarrett.