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Kaija SAARIAHO (b. 1952)
Petals (1988)a [10:43]
Oi Kuu (1990)b [6:23]
Spins and Spells (1997) [5:42]
Mirrors (1997)c [3:12]
Sept Papillons (2000) [11:09]
Près (1992)d [19:02]
Alexis Descharmes (cello); Jérémie Fèvre (flute)c; Nicolas Baldeyrou (bass clarinet)b; David Poissonnier (electronics)ad
rec. Espace de projection, IRCAM, Paris, September 2004
AEON AECD 0637 [56:11]

Some 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 world.
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.
In 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.
Sept 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.
The 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.
Alexis 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.
Hubert Culot



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