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CD Review

Kaija Saariaho

Chamber Works for Strings, Volume 1

  • Tocar 1,2
  • Vent nocturne for Viola & Live Electronics 3,4
  • Calices 2,5
  • Spins and Spells 6
  • Nocturne for Violin 1
  • Nymphea "Jardin Secret III" 1,7
1 Minna Pensola, violin
2 Anna Laakso, piano
3 Atte Kilpeläinen, viola
4 Marko Myohanen, electronics
5 Antti Tikkanen, violin
6 Tomas Djupsjobacka, cello
7 Kaija Saariaho, electronics
Meta4 Ondine ODE122-2
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Kaija Saariaho, who was born in 1952 in Finland, is a prolific composer. Her operas stand at the core of her work. Given the operas' different (and always intriguing and focused) preoccupations, her other work (large scale orchestral and chamber – both often with electronics) conveys a great sense of unity. Saariaho's music is sensitive, uncompromising, original, beautiful in sound, makes carefully-considered use of the textures of the instruments employed, and expects performers to work with the overall structure and direction of the work at the forefront of their minds.

Tocar is a duo for violin and piano dating from 2010. A piece for the compulsory round in the intermediate Jean Sibelius Violin Competition (for players), it explores how instruments with two such distinct techniques can nevertheless touch each other (hence the title). It has more than the aspect of study about it; focused and contained yet bespeaking a much wider spirit, there are as many arpeggios and mournful chords as there are reflective (and perhaps tentative) expressions of each instrument's more conventional essences.

Vent nocturne for Viola and Live Electronics (2006) also has its origins in dualistic thinking: Saariaho was inspired to emulate what she sees as the sounds of breathing produced by the violin and wind by electronics after reading a bilingual edition of the poetry of Georg Trakli. Without the hint of a cliché, the music is both compelling sonically and full of melody – especially in the second movement.

Calices (2009) for violin and piano is a restatement, on reduced scale, of material from Saariaho's violin concerto, Graal Théâtre. Like the other pieces on the CD, there is contrast and tension in varying measures. And, although superficially the listener may feel they are being invited to respond to a mood, the music is far more substantial if for no other reason than that the resolution of agitation and nervousness is achieved in such a way that one has no choice but to view the development of textures and gestures on a horizontal (time) scale as much as, if not more than, on a vertical (purely sonic) one.

Spins and Spells is also a competition piece – from 1997. It too explores the relationship between two musical states – this time of movement. Scordatura enhances the sense of progression, possible tonal resolution in the context of musical time and the fragility of harmony under the "right" circumstances.

Another early work, Nocturne for Violin dates from 1994 and was written in commemoration of Lutoslawski on the occasion of his death that year. It shares with the other works here brittleness and the imperative offered by terseness. Also based on Graal Théâtre, which was in composition at the time, Saariaho has described it as one of her greatest minor works.

The earliest work in this wholly welcome anthology, Nymphea "Jardin Secret III" dates from 1987 and was written for the Kronos Quartet. Its substance originates in computer-derived acoustic analysis of the sound of the cello. There's nothing ascetic about the work, though; its richness is derived from Saariaho's extensive gift of blending the austere with the soft (the reference is to water lilies) as much as from the inevitably broader texture of the string quartet.

Saariaho's music is beautiful, compelling and imaginative at every turn. This CD illustrates well what she has to offer in the apparently reduced medium of chamber strings (with piano and electronics). Yet the approach taken – individually and collectively – by the members of Meta4 reveals just how profound and far-reaching Saariaho's vision is and how her musical preoccupations expand in the medium to fill vast spaces with highly meaningful and musically evocative and convincing compositions.

The playing of Meta4 (Antti Tikkanen and Mina Pensola, violins; Atte Kilpeläinen, viola; Tomas Djupsjobacka, cello; Anna Laakso, piano; Marko Myohanen, electronics) and Kaija Saariaho herself, electronics, is superb. Their technique is astute, intense. Yet they are almost relaxed in the way they offer space for the at times complex and concentrated music to evolve and explain itself. This degree of competence only comes from great familiarity with the composer's preoccupations and world. Their approach is never detached. But at the same time it's not that of superficial advocates of Saariaho's particular style. The music is the best advocate. In other words potential rhetoric is subdued. Technical prowess advanced. Much of the music is slow. It's all thoughtful. And these players respond admirably to the challenges attendant on this.

The acoustic is responsive and tight. The space in the Sellosali, Espoo supports the effects and intricacies of the music, rather than adding spectacle or atmosphere. The booklet from Ondine has simple detail on the six works and the text of Nymphea. This is Volume I of Saariaho's Chamber Works (for strings). If she is new to you, you're likely to be struck with the quality, reach, beauty and originality of her music. If you're already aware of this major composer's work, this CD should not be missed. It's the first in a two-CD collection that will assemble all her works in the medium to date. Even were none of the music available elsewhere apart from Spins and Spells and Nocturne for Violin (on Accord 472722 and Cedille 134, respectively), this would be a major release of enticing and important music. Recommended.

Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey