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Aulis SALLINEN (b. 1935)
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 86 (2004) [23.01]
Piano Trio: Les Visions Fugitives for piano, violin and cello Op. 96 (2009-10) [18.17]
From A Swan Song for cello and piano Op. 67 (1990-91) [13.30]
Elina Vähälä (violin); Arto Noras (cello); Ralf Gothóni (piano)
rec. Naantali, 2010
CPO 777 814-2 [55.09]

This (2015) is the year of Sallinen’s 80th birthday it having passed on 9 April just as I write this review. He is the senior figure in Finnish music, not quite the heir to Sibelius as many expected but he has produced eight symphonies and of late, several concertos and chamber music as this new release aptly testifies.

Sallinen has shown, throughout his career, a real penchant for the cello. In addition to the two solo cello works here there are a dozen others including the Cello Concerto and a Sonata for solo cello of 1971. He has discovered a true way of making the instrument sing but also making it dramatic and powerful.

Many pieces by Sallinen are offshoots of larger ones. Shadows Op. 52 uses material from the opera The King Goes Forth to France. From A Swan Song Op. 67 uses material from the 1991 opera Palatsi (The Palace) as does The Palace Rhapsody (on CPO 999 972-2). It’s a curious opera in that the central character, the King, makes only one appearance late on in the piece. He is then carted off to prison but not before he sings a complex and passionate aria translated as ‘There is blackness in the sky’. It is this aria that forms the basis for Sallinen’s Op. 67. This is at times mysterious and slow in the rhythm of a cradle song and at others excitable and stirring. So, as the usual high quality CPO booklet notes tell us (by Martin Anderson) the work “unfolds as a kind of scena with two instruments as actors in a dramatic dialogue.” Beginning on a repeated bottom C it ends back where it began after a journey which ends “in desolation”.

The Piano Trio is a significant work and Sallinen’s only example. It was written for the present performers whom the composer describes as “three outstanding Finnish musicians”. It is in one movement but plays continuously being, according to the composer, a Moderato or an Andante in the notes. This is followed by an Adagio and then an Allegro. All have in common the fact that the material for each gradually peters out and collapses into mere gesture and silence. The reason is given in the composer’s brief notes . The Fugitive Visions are those of an artist who becomes blind and who can only paint by colour memory. An interesting idea but one I can’t quite relate to the musical substance ... or am I missing something? Despite that, this is a melancholy work and also a beautiful one which I have returned to and will do again. It’s economical and although not tonal exactly neither is it unfocused on key centres. The performance captures the atmosphere but I’m not always convinced that the performers are technically quite on top of some of the more demanding passages.

A similar vein of nostalgia and regret often haunts the Cello Sonata or it may be perhaps a reflection of a bleaker northern landscape. To mitigate that mood there are many moments when sunnier southern climes are searched out. It may be the long sweeping melodic lines of the first two movements or their titles Barcarole and Serenata but the Italy of Venice comes to mind. The booklet notes seem to confirm this with the comment that the composer could be “evoking … the lover outside his lady’s window”. The third movement throws us into a different world; it is a Tango - not unknown in Sallinen’s music. It tries to escape at the end of the second movement and dies away into the somewhat forlorn mood of the finale, the longest movement. This quotes fragments from elsewhere and brings a satisfying full close to this thought-provoking work. The players are the original dedicatees.

I’m not quite sure why performers and listeners have had a delay of four years before this disc could finally emerge. CPO have been carrying through a Sallinen project for a few years so perhaps this disc has had to wait its turn. It has been well worthwhile however and adds usefully to our knowledge of this crucial and fascinating elder statesman of Scandinavian music.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank


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