Pēteris Vasks: Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra  – Vēstijums  – Lauda 
Albrecht Mayer (oboe), Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Andris Poga (conductor)
Recording: Great Guild Hall, Riga, Latvia (July 16-17, 2020 [2, 3] and July 20-21, 2020 ) – 68’41
Ondine ODE 1355-2 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English
Hearing Albrecht Mayer as soloist in Pēteris Vasks’ Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra is like listening to a marvelous storyteller spin a charming tale you wish would never end.
From the oboe’s entrance in movement one, through the brilliant midpoint cadenza, to the labyrinthine meanderings of the final section, Mayer’s distinctive tone—bell-like in clarity and as lithesome as an imagined woodland sylph—is the very soul of Vasks’ evocative pastorale, a new work dating to 2018. Now in his 70s, Vasks is one of Latvia’s leading composers, with an impressive output of symphonies, chamber and choral works to his credit. Two of these works also appear on this album with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Andris Poga. But it is the Oboe Concerto, with this particular oboist, that steals the show.
Commissioned by this orchestra, the Oboe Concerto wins us over in the first movement with its adventurous lyricism and outdoorsy vigor. Latvia is not exactly a stone’s throw from England, but there is an unmistakably Vaughan Williams feel to the work that is immediately and appreciatively apparent. But there is also a hint of Richard Strauss, whose own Oboe Concerto, composed in his elder years, commanded the oboe to sing freely and without restraint.
The second movement verges on program music in the best sense of the term, redolent with folk-like melodies and imagery. Following a brilliant cadenza, the section ends abruptly, as though the work couldn’t possibly continue from this point. And yet it does, like the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. The third movement is still bucolic, but now in a wistful mood. The voices of other woodwinds whisper what may be prayers, not surprising as Vasks was the child of a pastor and someone who has deeply pondered moral conflict. Once again, I am utterly captivated by Mayer’s playing, so sweet and tender. It is a sound accepting of the painful difficulties of the world, but not broken by them; indeed, leading us, as by a beneficent Pied Piper, into a future full of warmth and light, far from the cold waters of the Weser.
The two works for orchestra which follow are varied and imaginative. Vēstijums (Message) for two pianos, strings and percussion dates from 1982. Musical ideas spring from the orchestra like twinkling sparklers, little bursts of fireworks, small and intensely colored. Choppy, chattering percussions beat against banks of strings, like waves crashing against tall Doverian cliffs. Urgency, spurts of intensity rush through the orchestra, then smooth out like unrolled bolts of silk. The selection ends in an unexpected swell of cacophony that can be a little unnerving until it swings back down into shimmering strings and floats softly into space. But we’re not quite there yet. There is another crescendo, a whirr of timpani, and an ending which, while a bit predictable as endings go, leaves no doubt that it’s time to move on.
I found the final selection, Lauda, for symphony orchestra (1985), the least appealing of the three Vasks works, but still capable of catching us off-guard, strategically directing toward us some new musical ideas to think through. Percussion and strings prevail, and a shining trumpet pierces through an intriguing babel of ideas as no other sound can do.
But at the end of the day, it is Vasts’ Oboe Concerto that makes this album a shining star. Many thanks to the talents of Andris Poga and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, but especially to a gifted composer who has found in Albrecht Mayer an incomparable expression.