Sol Gabetta's recording of Vasks' "Presence" with Amsterdam Sinfonietta. (Courtesy of Sony Classical)
Vasks: Presence
Sol Gabetta, Candida Thompson, cond.

Sony Classical

When the cellist Sol Gabetta was 18 years old, she heard an intriguing piece for solo cello and voice by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. Years later, Gabetta found the score, tracked down the composer, invited him to the music festival she runs in Switzerland and pestered him to write her a cello concerto.

She got her wish in 2012 with “Klatbutne” (Presence), an arresting 35-minute work for cello and string orchestra that anchors Gabetta’s latest album, where she’s backed by an insightful Amsterdam Sinfonietta led by Candida Thompson.

After a slow, four-minute monologue for solo cello, the concerto takes flight in luminous strings and a yearning, gently rising theme played by Gabetta with extraordinary tenderness. The second movement, an agitated scherzo with an anguished cadenza at its core, shows off Gabetta’s muscle and dexterity. Its final chords cry out at a level of despair reminiscent of Shostakovich.

A pastoral mood returns in the Adagio, finding Gabetta’s cello circling and climbing. Think Vaughan Williams’s beloved “The Lark Ascending” but on a decidedly overcast day. Vasks says in the booklet notes that it’s “the soul ascending into the cosmos.”

Near the end, there’s a surprise. Gabetta’s voice is heard, singing a wordless lullaby. The concerto finally evaporates in the cello’s upward-spiraling glissandos.

Gabetta requested that vocal insert, as it reminded her of the Vasks piece she initially fell in love with, “Gramata Cellam” (The Book), which closes the album. It reminds the composer, who turns 70 in April, of Latvia’s Communist era.

The first of two contrasting movements opens with screaming sirens in the cello’s upper register, devolving into a fevered anxiety that rarely lets up. The following Pianissimo movement breathes tranquility, with a literal singing line, again featuring wordless crooning by Gabetta.

Sandwiched in the middle is “Musique du Soir,” an evocative 13-minute piece for cello and organ where Gabetta is joined by her mother, Irene Timacheff-Gabetta. Elegant, long cello lines float above softly swirling pools of organ chords.

Keen listeners will hear debts to some of Vasks’s musical heroes, such as Krzysztof Penderecki. Those new to him, like Gabetta was years ago, should find here music that conjures emotionally charged spaces filled with beauty and struggle.

— Tom Huizenga

Mozart: Keyboard Music, Vols. 8 & 9
Kristian Bezuidenhout

Harmonia Mundi

Kristian Bezuidenhout’s recording of Mozart’s Keyboard Music, Vols. 8 & 9. (Courtesy of Harmonia Mundi)

The pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout has staked a claim to an important and well-known swath of the canonic repertory and made it entirely his own. The music he so happily interprets (or perhaps “inhabits” is the correct word) is the piano music of Mozart, played on modern replicas of instruments that the composer would have recognized.

These days it’s generally understood that even though modern pianos are more stable and have a wider dynamic range, the instruments of Mozart’s time were by no means deficient in contrast, color or expressive potential.

Bezuidenhout plays these older style fortepianos, as we call them, with consummate ease and mastery. He and the fortepiano are one, and its smaller scale and more intimate soundscape seem to liberate rather than constrain him.

Born in South Africa, trained at Eastman and now living in London, Bezuidenhout will be 37 this year. He recently completed recording all of Mozart’s music for solo piano, a project he began in 2009.

This latest installment maintains the sense of freshness and discovery that has characterized the project from the start.

Mozart’s most unabashedly virtuosic writing often occurs in his variation sets, and Bezuidenhout has a field day with the “Variations on a March by Grétry,” K 352. A mercurial spontaneity keeps the ears guessing what will come next. Only the terminally somber will be able to suppress a chuckle at the antics of the Gigue in G, K 574.

Of the four sonatas here, the standout for me is Mozart’s last, in D, K 576. Bezuidenhout evokes a lively exchange with a vivacious, charming conversationalist, with phrasing as natural as speech. In fine 18th-century style, we never hear the same material the same way twice. Everything is cleverly and imaginatively embellished.

When the slow movement’s untroubled, bucolic aria suddenly takes an ominous wrong turn into the minor key, the contrast is startling.

In the finale, as Mozart unleashes starbursts of textures each more brilliant than the last, Bezuidenhout’s sense of exhilaration is contagious. It’s a viscerally thrilling realization of music by a composer whose appetite for life and joy in living seem inexhaustible.

— Patrick Rucker