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Kaija Saariaho: Tocar - Vent nocturne - Calices - Spins and Spells - Nocturne - Nymphéa
META4: Antti Tikkanen (violin), Minna Pensola (violin), Atte Kilpeläinen (viola), Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello); Anna Laakso (piano), Marko Myöhänen (electronics)
Recorded at: Sellosali, Espoo (October 2012) – 71'35
Ondine ODE 1222-2 – Booklet in English, French, Finnish

Haunting and evocative are words that immediately spring to mind when describing Kaija Saariaho's musical world. This is especially true of works she has created since the late 1990s, which form the bulk of this, the excellent first volume of the Finnish composer's chamber works for strings from Ondine.

Chronologically, Nymphéa is the earliest work on the disc (it was composed in 1987) and, while it indeed contains many haunting passages, it is decidedly more gestural and abstract than the later works. It is also perhaps Saariaho's most-performed and -recorded chamber work, having commanding commercial discs available from the Kronos and Arditti quartets, among others. META4 is a group new to me, but their playing is detailed and fearless in the music on the disc. The performance of Nymphéa finds the group skillfully blending their instruments and whispers and weaving imperceptibly in and out of the electronic material. Comparing this to the Arditti and Kronos recordings find no significant make-or-break moments, so the buyer is encouraged to be confident choosing their performance based on the couplings.

Vent nocturne, for viola and live electronics, has the most surface similarities with Nymphéa, but there is more lyrical presence and structural ease of understanding in the nocturne, composed nearly 20 years later. "Sombre mirrors" ("Dark mirrors") sees the electronics providing breath sounds and spectral resonance on the violas figurations, while its complement, "Soupirs de l'obscur" ("Sighs of the darkness") finds the viola interacting with more metallic and occasionally organ-like electronic sounds. The influence of Georg Trakl's poetry is insider knowledge and wouldn't be obvious to the listener first approaching the piece. It is a substantial work considering the forces at play, and is a great foil for Calices, a work similar in size to the Vent nocturne but for purely acoustic forces (violin and piano). This piece, a "reinterpretation of material from the violin concerto Graal Théâtre," is the most concrete work on the disc. Its shape bears a striking resemblance to Debussy's Violin Sonata, the three movements combining into a work as close to a classically-structured sonata as we're likely to get from Saariaho. Likewise, Tocar, the most recent work, is an evocative, highly melodic work composed for the Jean Sibelius competition. It occupies a space that seems to reference the influence of Orientalia on Debussy, Ravel and Szymanowski, with a hint of Messiaen thrown in for the pianist.

Two solo works round out the program. Spins and Spells for solo cello has the most accurately descriptive title, Saariaho creating a minimalist-cum-spectralist meditation on the Prelude from Bach's C major suite cast through a contemporary prism. The influence of the electronic studio can be heard in the quarter tone and bow pressure effects used, mitigating between noise and pure sound in a shadow-like manner. Nocturne, a surprisingly moody work for solo violin, appropriately draws on the skittering night music first mastered by Bartók and further developed by Lutoslawski, the dedicatee of the Saariaho work.

If anything disappoints on the disc, it's the overall similarity in gesture of the works: they all begin and end in softness, and there is a distinct lack of rhythmic edge in the entire 72-minute playing time. This is a small complaint, however, and the playing by the quintet of instrumentalists is top-notch. The disc is recorded very closely, but the balance in the ensemble works maintains warmth and equality among parts. The liner notes give excellent narrative descriptions of each work and, altogether, this is an excellent purchase for those interested in the development of Saariaho's language and contemporary music for strings.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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