The choral music of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks offers an ideal approach to new music for people who think they don't like new music. His music is certainly not going to be mistaken for that of a traditional tonal composer or a neo-Romantic; it's full of swoops, clusters, and startling sonorities. While he includes a generous sampling of 20th and 21st century techniques in his compositional toolkit, that's not all he's got in there; he also uses tonal harmonies, recognizable forms, memorable melodies, and it wouldn't be stretching to characterize his music as essentially sweet and sensual without being cloying. Most importantly, he combines his disparate materials in ways that have an inescapably direct emotional impact, often with the simple communicativeness of Eastern European minimalist mystics, with whom he could reasonably be grouped.
Vasks is a prolific choral composer and the eight secular pieces on this 2012 album represent a sampling of some of his most appealing works. Most are a cappella but one is accompanied by violin, cello, and tape, and one by percussion. Some are for mixed voices and some for women's voices. The album opens with its most challenging work, The Tomtit's Message, a dazzling virtuoso showcase for mixed voices that immediately establishes the astonishingly sophisticated musicianship and gorgeous choral sound of the Latvian Radio Choir, led by Sigvards Klava, which seems undaunted by Vasks' most extravagant demands for extended vocal techniques, alternating with sections of piercing tonal purity. Other highlights include the gentle Silent Songs, the rhapsodic Summer for women's voices, and the Plainscapes, an atmospheric wordless vocalize with string accompaniment. The sound of the Ondine CD is cleanly detailed but isn't lacking in warmth or resonance. Fans of composers like Mortensen and Whitacre are likely to find much to enjoy in Vasks' strikingly original choral works.