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Aulis SALLINEN (b. 1935)
Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 86 (2004) [23:01]
From a Swan Song for Cello and Piano, op. 67 (1990-91) [13:30]
Piano Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano, op. 96 (2009-10) [18:17]
Elina Vähälä (violin); Arto Noras (cello); Ralf Gothóni (piano)
rec. Naantali, 2010
CPO 777 814-2 [55:09]

Aulis Sallinen seems to have a proclivity for the cello in his compositions, with a concerto, variations for cello and orchestra, compositions for cello and strings, solo cello and cello and piano works under his belt. In CPO’s illustrious Sallinen Edition, this latest release likewise focuses on the cello with three extremely fine chamber works.

Sallinen established his reputation as a composer of eight symphonies and no fewer than six operas. These helped, together with those of Joonas Kokkonen, to put Finland on the world stage as a leading exporter of contemporary opera in the last decades of the twentieth century.

The Cello Sonata was a commission from the Naantali Music Festival, and premiered there in 2005. Although in four movements, it is noted for its compactness, with linked elements in each movement provide a unifying cohesion. I find it a dark, wistful and brooding work of sparse textures. The first movement makes use of a barcarolle-type accompaniment. In the second movement, pizzicato and strummed chords are a feature. A Tango follows, and the work ends with an anguished finale employing an impassioned cello line.

From a Swan Song for Cello and Piano, op. 67 was commissioned by the Naantali Music Festival for the First International Paulo Cello Competition, held in Helsinki in 1991. The work is closely related to an opera the composer was working on at the time, entitled Palatsi (The Palace). Sallinen often worked on major works from which smaller compositions took wing. In Palatsi, the King sings a swan song in the final act, this being the one and only time he is heard in the opera. It is a bleak and plaintive aria, beginning with the words: ‘There is a blackness in the skies’. The character of Op. 67 is desolate. It‘s an almost 15 minute dramatic dialogue between cello and piano, with the music being quite angular and percussive. Cello harmonics feature, and a tango-like dance makes an appearance, but is quelled by the darker elements. The work ends in a doleful manner.

Sallinen’s only Piano Trio was again a commission from the Naantali Music Festival for the Summer of 2010. It consists of three linked movements. Once again the underlying character of the work is gloomy, weary and pessimistic, with a sense of foreboding. The composer provides a programme note about a painter going gradually blind, and one cannot help but wonder if there is not a biographical element underlying the score, mirroring the struggle of the musician, as age blunts the acuity of his hearing.

In well-recorded sound, the musicians deliver captivating and fully-committed performances. Booklet notes by Martin Anderson set the seal on this highly desirable release.

Stephen Greenbank