Overheard last week in Tempelhof Field—a public park fashioned, in true Berliner style, out of an abandoned airport: 

“I hate it here.” 
“No, this plane of existence.”

A relatable feeling. Fortunately, there’s a new Pēteris Vasks recording. Vasks understands how draining this plane of existence can be, as evidenced in the names he’s given to many of his works: “Sad Mother.” “The Sonata of Loneliness.” “Landscapes of the Burnt-Out Earth.” Throughout his career he’s referred to himself time and again as a “sad optimist.” 

Like many composers who grew up in the shadow of the USSR, Vasks struggled to develop his artistic voice against a restrictive regime. Born in a small Latvian town almost exactly one year after VE Day with a Baptist priest for a father, Vasks’ marginalization began at conception: His home country had been occupied by German forces until 1944, and reintegrated into the Soviet Union the following year. “People like me were considered socially hostile,” he told the Irish Times in 2001. “They were not put in prison. They were not sent to Siberia. But for them it was more difficult to acquire education.” Still, even for Vasks, whose sole desire was to study music, he still couldn’t shake his “opposition to the ruling ideology.” 

He went to Lithuania first, where he was introduced to the contemporary Polish music scene, and he was eventually able to return to Riga and study there. But this conflict between personal morals and state-issued dogma reflects and refracts in Vasks’s music: Heart-stoppingly beautiful phrases are met with near-fatal dissonance. Chords smash themselves into dust. The end of his 1976 solo work “Cycle” ends with an apocalypse of hammers on piano strings; it’s a controlled apocalypse that paints a detailed landscape. Crashes happen at different volumes, suggesting a total collapse both up close and further afield. 

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Written in the slightly more liberal years that saw Vasks studying in Riga despite his so-called social hostility, “Cycle” seems to serve as a musical diary of sorts. We begin with a fraught Prologue. This gives way to the uneasy ease of a Nocturne, a respite from agitated chords and schizophrenic tempi that is soon overtaken by the third movement, a Drama that begins as if suddenly awakening from a dream. At first blush, the final movement (Epilogue) feels like another reprieve. But, ever so slowly, its softness is swallowed up by a disquieting sense of cataclysm. Given the name, this doesn’t even suggest an ending; if the epilogue cycles back to the prologue, the loop continues. 

It’s an exhausting prospect for a fiendishly difficult work, one that pianist and Trio Palladio member Reinis Zarins meets head-on with fearless precision. Following that, we’re offered some solace with one of Vasks’s best-known works, “The Seasons,” which opens with the quiet, muted calm of a winter snowfall. This curation is a moment of catch-and-release; tension is pushed to the brink before quickly and blessedly going slack. These works are preceded by a new piece written especially for Zarins, “Cuckoo’s Voice (Spring Elegy).” This almost seems like a mistake for the opening: a slow procession that channels both Beethoven’s most pathos-laden moments and the whimsy of Britten’s own cuckoo-inspired “Friday Afternoons.” It’s slow and methodical, inspiring the sort of reverential hush you’d expect as an encore. But with Vasks, it’s the right move at the right time: To go any further into his sonic world requires a sense of stillness that’s hard to manage these days. This work is the vehicle for that stillness. It’s not Vasks at his most radical, but even the most radical people owe it to themselves to be tender from time to time. 

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Though tenderness can sometimes be a distraction. Take Schubert: His “Winterreise” is an unflinching emotional press where the music centers the listener in the shit at all times. But just as fundamentally despairing—perhaps even more so for its loss-of-innocence subplot—is “Die schöne Müllerin.” We just miss that sense of tragedy until the last few songs, because it’s all fun and games and pastoral romps until you realize the girl with whom you’re having a parasocial relationship doesn’t realize you exist. Language is even more critical to the full effect of “Müllerin,” and following along with a translation is only so effective. Even less so are some of the English translations that, more often than not, preserve the Romantic mannerisms of the texts in amber and further neutralize their dramatic impact. 

This is what makes “The Fair Maid of the Mill,” all the more extraordinary: For the first time, as a native English speaker, I found myself understanding this song cycle on a more intimate and revelatory level. Beyond that, it may be one of the first English translations of a libretto I’ve encountered that didn’t feel like it was written by the Duolingo owl pulling an all-nighter fueled by Adderall and RedBull. The meticulousness of word-for-word accuracy is traded for emotional accuracy. Playwright and director Jeremy Sams was commissioned to write this new translation, and his background in both opera and musical theater lends itself well to finding the right words to convey poetic, emotional, and dramatic honesty. (If you haven’t heard his translation of the delightfully surreal French musical “Amour” for its 2002 Broadway run, you’re in for a treat.) 

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Tenor Nicky Spence’s own sense of crossover theatricality heightens the immediacy and intimacy of the cycle and Sams’s new texts with a verdant tenor that blooms and contracts in emotional fits and starts. (These beats are both offset and at times juxtaposed by pianist Christopher Glynn, who is the driving force behind this new Schubert in English series for Signum.) As the journeyman’s dream begins to collapse on itself and he makes his last-ditch efforts to quell a burgeoning romance between his own beloved and a local hunter, Spence spits out his pleas in a fit of jealousy and panic. The clarity with which he delivers the words makes it easy to slip into the language of Schubert’s work and tap into the small details that render the story so devastating at the end—try listening to him sing of how his love “loves hunting green” without your throat catching a bit. 

It’s these small details that make this English “Müllerin” so rich and compulsively listenable. Sams, Spence, and Glynn fashion miniature scenes out of such moments—akin to Marlon Brando caressing Eva Marie Saint’s tiny glove in “On the Waterfront”—that stand in for the entire drama. They’re easily held onto long after the album ends, remaining indelibly seared into memory weeks later, just as vital as when they were first heard. ¶

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