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Work of the Week – Pēteris Vasks: Gloria & Mein Herr und mein Gott

This week, two new works by Pēteris Vasks, Gloria and Mein Herr und mein Gott, will receive their world premieres at Rīga Cathedral on 8 September, performed by the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and the Latvian State Academic Choir under Māris Sirmais.

Vasks was born in 1946 in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. As the son of a well-known Baptist pastor, Vasks suffered from the heavily repressive cultural policies of the time due to his religious beliefs and artistic convictions. However, in later years his compositions quickly achieved widespread recognition and acclaim. Choral music in particular forms a significant part of Vasks’ œuvre.

Pēteris Vasks’ Gloria and Mein Herr und mein Gott – From meditation to jubilation

Rather than using traditional Latin text, Vasks’ Gloria for choir and organ expresses its glorification of God using purely wordless music. Three majestic orchestral passages in D minor interplay with answering meditative choral sections, further differentiated by contrasting tempos. A celebratory hallelujah chorus follows in the brilliant key of D major, which gradually crescendos towards an ecstatic forte-fortissimo unison finale.

Rarely do Vasks compositions conclude with such an extreme dynamic: More characteristically, his music emerges out of silence and returns to it again to end, as in Mein Herr und mein Gott. This choral work with string orchestra is a setting of a prayer seeking closeness to God by the Swiss mystic Niklaus von Flüe. Verses in meditative pianissimo frame a louder central section that proclaims ‘give me everything that brings me closer to you!’ The musical prayer finally closes with the hushed words ‘detach me from myself to give my all to you’ in a sustained and peaceful C Major.

The chant is the ideal in my music, but it is usually an instrumental chant. In the period of communism everything was strictly controlled, but it is impossible to control instrumental music. Composing was my freedom. All the poets and artists in that terrible time fought against this control and in music everything was easier. Though it happened in symbols, the people understood it. – Pēteris Vasks

The same concert will feature Vasks’ Pater noster (1995) arranged for choir and string orchestra, Missa (2000/2005) for mixed choir and string orchestra, and Credo (2009) for orchestra. On the same day the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra will give Vasks’ Concerto for viola and string orchestra (2015) its Finnish premiere with Maxim Rysanov as soloist and Risto Joost conducting. The O/Modernt chamber orchestra conducted by Hugo Ticciati will perform Viatore (2001) a few days before on 6 September in Stockholm, and on 10 September the Jenaer Philharmonie will play the Violin Concerto “Distant Light” (1997) with violinist Donata Sailer and conductor Marc Tardue.