time ago, I reviewed a disc devoted to a generous selection
of Saariaho’s chamber music (Kairos 0012412KAI - see review).
That disc shares some of the works recorded here (Petals, Spins
and Spells, Mirrors).
The present release focuses on the several chamber works
for cello composed from 1988 onwards. In the insert notes,
the composer admits her love of the cello, for which she
has composed a sizeable body of work including a cello concerto Amers (Sony
SK 60817 reviewed here) and the large-scale Près recorded
on this disc. The other pieces are somewhat shorter, but
not necessarily easier, be it for the players or the listeners.
Most if not all, of them were worked out in close collaboration
with Anssi Karttunen, for whom most were composed and who
has performed all of them. Such close co-operation with as
fine an artist as Karttunen helped the composer explore the
emotional and technical possibilities of the instrument in
order to mould them to suit her own expressive and poetic
Petals (1988 – cello and electronics ad libitum)
is her earliest work for cello. Although this may be performed
in the acoustic
version, the addition of live electronics naturally enhances
the expressive and colouristic possibilities of the instrument
by enlarging the sound-world of the cello. The live electronics
do not include any external, pre-recorded or synthetic sounds,
but modify the cello’s sound in real time. In this early
work Saariaho explores spectral harmonies and techniques,
in which noise progressively turns into sound and vice versa.
The result is a strikingly original and inventive piece full
of arresting sonorities, colours and dramatic gestures.
total contrast, Oi Kuu (1990 – bass clarinet
and cello), Mirrors (1997 – flute and cello)
and Spins and Spells (1997 – solo cello) are
comparatively simple by Saariaho’s standards. The music is
still technically taxing and demanding. Mirrors is
a short piece that allows freedom on the players’ part in
that the various fragments that make up the score, may be
assembled in different ways while always respecting the ‘mirror’ principle.
The Kairos disc mentioned earlier offered two versions of
the piece, whereas this recorded performance is of the version
assembled by the composer.
Papillons (“Seven Butterflies”) is the most recent work here, composed in 2000
when the rehearsals of Saariaho’s opera were under way,
making the composer somewhat nervous and thus willing
to release some of her stress into the composition of
a short work. It is a suite of seven short miniatures
evoking ephemeral and fragile visions, with much sound
refinement and subtlety, through endlessly varied playing
techniques (such as harmonics and the like), although
spectral harmonies are on the whole less in evidence
than in Petals. The music again sets out
to explore the expressive range of the cello conjuring
up subtle, fragile, fugitive visions. This very fine
piece is a good example of what many writers have described
as Saariaho’s “new sensuality”, in the wake of her first
opera L’Amour de loin.
major work in this selection is the substantial Près (cello
and electronics) written at about the same time as Saariaho’s
cello concerto Amers, of which it reworks some material.
This piece might even be regarded as the composer’s second
cello concerto. This sizeable piece is in three movements,
of which the central one functions as a scherzo, energetic
and moving headlong, propelled by powerful ostinati.
The live electronics are much more elaborate than in Petals,
and offer different types of sound: pre-recorded (the ebb
of waves, as heard at the end of the first movement), electronically
processed cello sounds, synthetic sounds and effects in real-time
triggered by the cellist. The music displays a remarkably
large sound-palette in evoking an impressive seascape. Indeed,
the sea is present in several works by Saariaho, not least
in her first opera but also in Oltra mar (1998/9 – chorus
and orchestra) and in Amers, whereas its presence
may also be experienced in Petals, the music
of which also moves in huge sound-waves. Without being overtly
descriptive or programmatic, the music displays Saariaho’s
vivid aural imagination to the full. The very end of the
piece is pure musical magic: the material calmly ebbs away
in the combined sounds of the cello, spectral harmonies and
electronics suggesting endless sea vistas. Près is
undoubtedly one of Saariaho’s most substantial achievements,
but also a major work for cello and electronics as is Jonathan
Harvey’s equally impressive Advaya.
Descharmes clearly loves the music and plays it with utmost
conviction and formidable technical aplomb. His reading of Petals is
more expansive than that of Scott Roller on the Kairos disc
(his is two minutes longer than Roller’s), whereas his performance
of Près is as fine as that by Karttunen (on
Ondine ODE 906-2). In short, this is magnificent playing
of unusually fine music in a superb recording. A most welcome
addition to Saariaho’s discography. Not to be missed.