Vasks’ five string quartets now available on 2 CDs

In celebration of composer Pēteris Vasks’ 70th birthday in 2016, many recording projects were undertaken, and among the many such projects, perhaps the most ambitious is the recording of Vasks five (to date) string quartets by the Spīķeru String Quartet.

Released separately on two CDs (the first CD, containing string quartets Nos. 2 and 5 was released in 2015, then the second CD, containing string quartets Nos. 1, 3, and 4 was released in 2016), the works were recorded at the recently built Rēzekne concert hall GORS in the Latgale region of Latvia in 2014.

The Spīķeru String Quartet, who have been performing as a group since 2011, is made up of Marta Spārniņa (violin), Antti Kortelainen (violin), Ineta Abakuka (viola) and Ēriks Kiršfelds (cello). The name of the quartet comes from the fact that their base is the Spīķeri Concert Hall in Riga. The quartet also focuses on the music of Latvian composers in their repertoire, so they were a natural fit to take on the monumental task of recording all of Vasks’ string quartets for the German record label Wergo (who have released many of Vasks’ works on CD).

One of the many aspects that makes recording Vasks’ string quartets such a challenging endeavor is the scope of the works – they were composed over a nearly 30 year period – String Quartet No. 1 was composed in 1977 (though revised in 1997), and String Quartet No. 5 was composed in 2004, and feature many different compositional techniques and approaches. Vasks, whose music is often harsh and is meant to depict suffering, still imbues his compositions with hope, and his string quartets are often intimate and personal, balancing elements of nature, spirituality, and the Latvian spirit. Gathered together, his string quartets are an essential aspect of not just his body of work, but in all of Latvian music, and to perform them requires a group of musicians who are not only talented, but able to convey all of the emotions expressed in his music – and the Spīķeri String Quartet is such an ensemble.

The first string quartet, as it was written in the late 1970s, is perhaps the harshest of all of the quartets, and even though it was written in the period of the Soviet occupation of Latvia, it still has Vasks expressing his view of society at that time (in, of course, as oblique and abstract a way as possible, considering the severe censorship at the time). One might even consider the second movement (Sonata), with its rising tension, to be a kind of counter to the stagnant and oppressive Soviet environment of that era.

Vasks’ String Quartet No. 2 was composed in 1984, and this work displays the themes of nature that so often appear in his works. The quartet is entitled ‘Vasaras dziedājumi’ (Summer Tunes), and the work traces, in musical form, the summer from beginning to end. The first movement is entitled ‘Izplaukšana’ (Coming into Bloom), and its slow, deliberate development presents a picture of blooming nature after a long winter. The Spīķeru String Quartet provides an enthralling interpretation of this work, captivating the listener with their performance of this picturesque movement. The blooming is then followed by the movement simply entitled ‘Putni’ (Birds), where the musicians present the sounds and songs of a wide variety of birds. The sorrowful third movement – ‘Elēģija’ (Elegy), heralds the approaching autumn, and the accompanying sadness at the departure of summer.

More than a decade passed before the appearance of the third string quartet, which was composed in 1995. According to the liner notes of the CD, the theme of this string quartet is Christmas. From the soft and tender touches of the first movement, perhaps reminding the listener of a calm winter night, with candles flickering in the darkness, the sudden burst of energy in the second movement, a kind of celebratory dance, provides a stark contrast. The abrupt end of the second movement then leads to the dramatic third movement, reminding listeners that even during Christmas, one of the most joyous times of the year, there is still much suffering and unhappiness in the world, but this somber note is tempered with the concluding fourth movement, which does resolve this string quartet on a note of hope (and bird sounds again), indicating that all is not lost. The Spīķeru String Quartet takes this work with its many contrasts, and reveals all the many subtleties and nuances throughout.

At more than half an hour in length, Vasks’ String Quartet No. 4, composed in 1999, is the longest of the quartets. The work and its five moments were dedicated to the composer’s mother, who was celebrating her 90th birthday, which inspired the composer to contemplate the entire 20th century in this work. Perhaps due to that dedication, the work has, at times, a sentimental feel to it, a sense of eras that have long passed, particularly the slightly nostalgic first movement ‘Elegy’, which, according to the notes, is meant to convey a view of Latvia in the early 20th century. The concluding movement – ‘Meditation’, one of the most striking sections of all the string quartets, is woven together by the melancholy violin performance, which, as Vasks himself described, is meant to convey the flight of an angel, who views the world with both sadness and hope.

The most recent string quartet – composed in 2004 – is in two parts, with a theme of presence and absence. The first part, entitled ‘Klātbūtne’ (Being Present), is a direct and sharp work, and the Spīķeru String Quartet maintain this turbulence and tension for the entire thirteen minutes of the piece – bringing forth the energy and emotion until the conclusion. The second movement, as in many of Vasks’ works, is an immediate contrast, somber and deliberate. Entitled ‘Tālu prom … tik tuvu’ (So distant … yet near), it is another work that is full of longing and a quiet despair, emotionally rich and textured. As the movement concludes, the strings present a mood of departure, as the music fades, conveying a sense of deep loss.

The CDs come with extensive notes on the composer, the Spīķeru String Quartet, as well as detailed notes and analysis of the works, written by Latvian composer Jānis Petraskēvičs. The notes are presented in both German and English. The label Wergo, which is a division of the Schott Music Publishing company, has produced yet another commendable CD of Vasks’ music.

Recording all five of Vasks’ string quartets, with their varying styles, broad range of themes and emotions, from pure joy to the depths of despair, would be an ambitious and daunting challenge for any string quartet, but the Spīķeru String Quartet has proven themselves not only up to the task, but has presented what might even be considered the definitive performances of these quartets. As the quartets trace the evolution of Vasks’ compositional style throughout the decades, they are perhaps the cornerstone of his body of work, and an essential aspect of Latvian classical music as a whole. These two CDs are not only a testament to Vasks’ stature as one of the greatest Latvian composers, but also to the talent of the Spīķeru String Quartet.


Pēteris Vasks String Quartets No. 1 – 5

Wergo WER 7329 2 (Quartets 2, 5), 2015
Wergo WER 7330 2 (Quartets 1, 3, 4), 2016


Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Rihards Zaļupe releases collection of atmospheric instrumental works

Marimba and percussion virtuoso Rihards Zaļupe has been expanding his horizons, both as a producer (he produced Pāri robežām, the most recent album by Latvian Voices), and has also turned to composition in various styles.

He composes in many different styles, and has composed for film, theater, choir, and instrumental works, some of which can be found on his 2008 album Marimba Dance, which won a Latvian Music Records Award in 2009 for best debut.

Zaļupe’s most recent release is Z Atmosfēras, which, as its title might indicate, is a collection of atmospheric instrumental works, combining percussion and electronic music to create an intimate and personal collection of songs.

Zaļupe, who performs all the instruments on the album, is primarily known for his marimba performances, and this instrument figures on many of the tracks on the album, including “Agrs rīts”, where the marimba and electronic music combine to form a lush musical tapestry to represent the dawn of a new day. In Zaļupe’s composition, the day approaches in waves, with steady crescendos giving way to brief moments of quiet, as the echoes fade. The work concludes with a slow fade, only to roar back in the final moments.

Zaļupe also imbues his works with elements from Latvian folk music, such as in “Miegs ziemeļos”, which includes a fragment of the melody of the Latvian folk song “Sidrabiņa lietiņš lija”. Here the marimba interplays with the piano to create a dreamy vision of sleep in the Nordics. This work, as well as a few others on the album, begins with Zaļupe reciting poetry by his wife Sondra, in an oddly monotone delivery.

The marimba is again the focus of “Sakrālā meditācija”, a work inspired by sacred meditation, and the marimba plays the role of the prayer, repeated again and again, then built upon with further marimba melodies, until achieving a kind of enlightenment at the end. Zaļupe deftly weaves together the various marimba parts to create a captivating musical introspection.

All the works on the album are woven together with a winter theme, such as on “Ziemassvētku trakums” (Christmas Craze), one of the more up-tempo works on the album, where the marimba plays an almost incessant, repetitive melody, perhaps to indicate a kind of mania. The work then continues with various percussive sound effects (which may lead the listener to think of cash registers, a la the Pink Floyd song “Money”). All the time, the tempo becomes faster, with a corresponding increase in tension, however, the ending is calm, indicating that all available energy has been expended.

As befits its title, the compositions on Rihards Zaļupe’s Z Atmosfēras are dreamy and atmospheric, calm and reflective. Listeners that may have expected the percussive fireworks that Zaļupe has displayed elsewhere may be slightly disappointed – though the marimba and percussion play a key role in these works, they are intentionally restrained and meditative. Zaļupe confirms again that he is not only one of the most talented, but also most creative musicians in Latvia, and these compositions blend together various instruments and sounds to create an engaging and rich meditative journey.

For further information, please visit Rihards Zaļupe’s website.


Rihards Zaļupe

Z Atmosfēras
Green River Music, 2016

Track listing:

  1. Agrs rīts
  2. Miegs ziemeļos
  3. Netīruma krāsa
  4. Putnezeme
  5. Sakrālā meditācija
  6. Stāsts par senām skumjām
  7. Ziemassvētku trakums
  8. Plāksnes un zvani


Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Various performers show diversity of “kokle” styles on new CD

The kokle, the Baltic instrument alternatively known as the Baltic zither or psaltery, is not only an instrument integral to Latvian folk culture, but also a symbol of Latvian culture itself, mentioned in many songs, poems, and stories. Perhaps due to its relatively simplistic design, the instrument, though it had a history centuries long, was close to disappearing in the 19th century. It experienced a rebirth during Latvia’s first awakening, and has remained a part of the national consciousness ever since, even during the half century of Soviet occupation. Today this ‘simple’ instrument has become not only more popular, it comes now in many sizes and shapes, even electric, and a broad group of Latvian musicians continue to keep the kokle in the public eye.

As a tribute to this most Latvian of instruments, the record label Lauska released the collection entitled Trejdeviņi koklētāji in 2016, celebrating the many facets and forms of this instrument in the performances of many of Latvia’s best known kokle players. The songs on the album are in many styles – ethno-jazz, ethno-baroque, minimalistic, and, of course, traditional, confirming the place of this ancient instrument in the 21st century.

The name of the collection – Trejdeviņi koklētāji – means 27 (or three times nine) kokle players, and it is not the actual count of the musicians that appear on this record (though it is close!) The title actually comes from a folk wedding song, where, when the husband is searching for his bride, he comes across 27 kokle players who are able to tell him which direction to go. In other words, kokle players have an innate ability to show us all the correction direction to go in life.

Perhaps the foremost kokle performer in Latvia today is ethnomusicologist Valdis Muktupāvels, who not only produced this album, but also appears on multiple tracks, including the first song on the album – the instrumental “Kurzemes zvani”. Inspired by time spent on the Swedish island of Gotland, listening to church bells, this tranquil and spiritual work captures the peace and calm of listening to church bells ringing in the countryside.

Another young artist pushing the boundaries of kokle performance is Laima Jansone, who often produces lively and fiery works for the instrument. One of those is “Pavasara grīslis”, a picturesque and energetic work inspired by the spring sedge. Jansone is known for her dynamic performances, and this song is no exception – in its depiction of this plant it contains all the joy and rebirth of springtime.

The album also balances the modern interpretations with more traditional kokle based performances, such as the song “Apkārtnīca” performed by the female folk group Laiksne. The group actually added the musical kokle accompaniment to the song, which is normally sung without instruments. This lively, exuberant performance captures the spirited nature of this song, about a journey through the town of Nīca.

Of course, the kokle is important in many Baltic and Nordic cultures, and this is reflected on the album as well, with performers such as Leanne Barbo from Estonia and Jenni Venäläinen from Finland. Barbo, who also plays with drum and bagpipe group Auļi (where she plays the bagpipes), performs the energetic “Veclaiku polka”, and Venäläinen performs with ethnomusicologist Ansis Jansons (who also appeared playing the kokle on the talent show Latvijas Zelta talanti) on the somber “Veļu dziesma”

As with many releases from the Lauska label (which specializes in Latvian folklore), the packaging for this album is exceptional. It is in the form of a hardback book, and has extensive notes on all of the songs and performers, as well as an extensive history of the kokle itself, in English and in Latvian. This is supplemented by many fascinating photographs, with some dating to the 1930s and 40s. Altogether it makes for a fitting tribute to this instrument.

Collecting a broad range of performances from many of Latvia’s top kokle players, Trejdeviņi koklētāji is a celebration of the musical instrument which perhaps most accurately defines the national psyche. At once simple and traditional, but, at closer glance, varied and multi-faceted, the instrument, in the hands of one of many of Latvia’s talented players, comes to life with its distinctive sound and texture. The legend of the three-times-nine kokle players, though ancient, is still quite relevant in these modern days, as shown by the extraordinary performances on Trejdeviņi koklētāji.

For further information, please visit the Lauska website.


Various artists

Trejdeviņi koklētāji
Lauska, LAUSKA CD063, 2016

Track listing:

  1. Kurzemes zvani – Valdis Muktupāvels
  2. Pa taciņu uz pirtiņu – Vētras saites
  3. Veclaiku polka – Leanne Barbo
  4. Bērzgales kadrija – Māris Muktupāvels
  5. Ēnu deja – Cantata
  6. Apkārtnīca – Laiksne
  7. Šai saulē, šai zemē – Valdis Muktupāvels, Rūta Muktupāvela, Agnese Kanniņa-Liepiņa, Kristiāna Ozoliņa, Kārlis Klotiņš
  8. Veļu dziesma – Ansis Jansons, Jenni Venäläinen
  9. Mēmais balodis svešumā – Sanita Sprūža
  10. Melnā jūra – Valdis Muktupāvels, Ainars Šablovskis
  11. Pavasara grīslis – Laima Jansone
  12. Kur tu teci, miega pele – Kristīne Ādmine, Artis Gulbis
  13. Sansulas ūdens – Valdis Muktupāvels, Rūta Muktupāvela


Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.