Peteris Vasks has become something of a leading light in Eastern European music. Although his work has probably enjoyed greater exposure since the popularity of Arvo Part, it’s more than likely this Latvian composer would have made it on his own anyway. An impressive body of works now boasts a collection of string quartets making as crucial a cycle as any currently in progress. The fourth of these, recorded by the Kronos Quartet for a cheaper “single” release, is a quartet with some big issues. When working on the piece in 1999, Vasks says he “often reflected on the passing century. My reflections were sombre ones”. The music conveys a wide range of emotions, from outright anger to serene calm.
The five movement piece grows from nothing, with an icy, intense slow movement. You can feel the cold of a Latvian winter here, with Vasks introducing a folk melody from his native country. Suddenly the music explodes into a ferocious Toccata, with Shostakovich a clear influence, although some of the gestures are a bit contrived. The Kronos play with a savage brutality, aggressive yet still in control. The Chorale offers some respite, if not from the depth of feeling, before the stormy music of the Toccata returns once more. Closing with an extended meditation full of ghostly portamenti and harmonics, the quartet subsides to a repressed close.
It leaves a powerful impact, and proves all the more pertinent as the Kronos Quartet are the dedicatees of this work. The Kronos have played a big role in contemporary music over the past twenty years, giving performances and premieres of the works of Reich, Glass and Schnittke, even arranging Jimi Hendrix‘ Purple Haze as an encore. For them to commission a work from Vasks indicates the high regard in which he is held. If it’s still available, the Miami Quartet disc of Quartets 1-3 makes a good companion to this confrontational, soul-searching work.