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Renaud Capuçon brings his own perspective to Pēteris Vasks’ violin concerto

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Those of us who believe that “new music” deserves as much serious listening as the “classics” tend to be thankful for every recording of a recent composition that comes our way. When a second recording comes along, thanks tends to turn to astonishment, since, with very few exceptions, this happens extremely rarely. The astonishment is even greater when it involves a composer such as the Latvian Pēteris Vasks, since, while his music is not always the most accessible, the attentive listener is always rewarded by the profundity of his expressiveness.

Fortunately, Vasks is a composer with many champions, many of whom have rather high profiles among the community of serious listeners. His concerto for violin and string orchestra, to which he gave the title “Tālā gaisma” (distant light) was composed for his fellow Latvian Gidon Kremer between 1996 and 1997. Kremer first performed the concerto with Saulis Sondeckis conducting the Kremerata Baltica in August of 1997, and that concerto became one of four Vasks compositions on a Teldec recording of Kremerata Baltica released in 1999. Since that time the concerto has been recorded several times, one of which, involving violinist Alina Pogostkina performing with the Sinfonietta Riga conducted by Juha Kangas, was discussed on this site in August of 2012.

At the beginning of last May, however, the concerto received a new recording from Erato of a violinist whose name has become as familiar as Kremer’s in that community of serious listeners. The violinist is Renaud Capuçon, who not only performs as soloist but also leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Considering that Kremer himself relinquished leadership of his own ensemble when performing this work for the first time, this is an impressive achievement, all the more so when one realizes, as I previously observed, how little time Vasks gives the soloist to rest.

In spite of these heavy demands, there is an accessibility to Capuçon’s performance that may distinguish this recording from its predecessors. I say “may” because that distinction comes as much from production values as from the performance itself; and, unfortunately, those values involve a discomforting balance as assets and liabilities. The most important asset has to do with the roughly half-hour duration of the concerto, a single uninterrupted movement, being divided into eight uninterrupted tracks that correspond to the major changes in tempo markings in the score. The listener thus has a useful key to the overall architecture of the concerto.

This is valuable because Vasks clearly put a lot of thought in realizing this concerto through a symmetrical structure. It is framed by two Andante sections, both of which are presented as slowing increasing crescendos. One thus gets the impression that the concept of a “distant light” is realized through “barely audible sound,” whose presence is very gradually disclosed. Then, in the center of the concerto is a fast-paced mosso (the only major tempo indication that is not capitalized) section, whose own center involves a highly demanding cadenza at an only slightly slower tempo. (In both cases the tempo is given by a metronome marking.) This central movement is both preceded and followed by a Cantabile section; and, in both cases, the Cantabile is separated from the Andante by a cadenza. However, the final cadenza is followed by a wild Tempo di Valse (in which the three-beat sense of a waltz only gradually emerges) before the concluding Andante begins. That conclusion then involves a second gradual crescendo. This involves different thematic material as well as a coda following the climax in which the dynamic level recedes back to inaudibility with a passing reference to that interrupting Tempo di Valse.

I have to say that almost all of those details emerged from my listening while following the track listing, although I subsequently confirmed them because Vasks’ publisher, Schott Music, provides a Web page with a read-only version of the score. However, when I said that the production values also had liabilities, I was referring primarily to the material in the accompanying booklet, written by Adélaïde de Place and translated into English by Elaine Guy. Not only does de Place not get the tempo markings right (no, I do not find confusing “Andante” with “Adagio” to be tolerable); but also she describes the architecture as “eleven episodes,” which involves a bit of creative hoop-jumping to establish what she thinks those episodes are. Needless to say, I challenged myself to find those hoops but was not particularly satisfied with the results. Thus, while the track listing does not account for everything (“Tempo di Valse” is missing), it will benefit the reader far more than the booklet essay.

Capuçon chose to precede Vasks’ concerto with the two solo violin concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 1042 in E major and BWV 1041 in A minor. Personally, I feel these make for an excellent introduction. Both concertos are as attentive to a basically symmetrical architecture as Vasks’ is, even if the Bach concertos are on a much shorter durational scale. Also, the Bach concertos involve the alternation of virtuoso solo work with the framing rhetoric provided by a string orchestra. Most importantly, however, the Bach concertos set up a framework of similarities and differences that prepares the listener better for Vasks’ concerto than does the “programming” of the previous recordings of that concerto.

Unfortunately, here, too, there is a glaring production flaw. The timings for the movements of BWV 1042 are actually those for BWV 1041 and vice versa. Had it not been for the more serious errors in the booklet, I probably would have let this pass. A bit more serious is the mention that the tuning standard for the entire recording is 441 Hz. This is so slightly different from the usual 440 Hz standard that I have to wonder why it was simply mentioned without any explanation. One reason may have been that it was a misprint. This, then, would have been a case of yet another petty detail that slipped into the final package because someone was asleep at the switch.

Fortunately, none of those details need detract from the listening experience.

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