Jennifer Koh and Kaija Saariaho, a Glorious Collaboration


Cedille

The arrestingly beautiful portrait that graces the cover of this album should be enough of  a cover to judge this release favorably. Just the presence of these two women suggests that you’re in for some serious music making. Add to that the fact that this is one of those impeccable Cedille releases and you know that you, the listener, will not be disappointed. Here is another offering for Women’s History Month (even though the disc was released in November, 2018).

Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) is possibly the hottest composer to come out of Finland since Sibelius. Her career has steadily grown and she has written for chamber ensemble, stage, and orchestra. It is somehow satisfying to have this little portrait of her work. (This reviewer’s first encounter with the composer was in 1987 when the Kronos Quartet premiered her Nymphea for string quartet and electronics.) Five works are selected here and, if you don’t know this composer’s work, think Debussy, Takemitsu, and their ilk. No electronics on this disc though. Her work is a unique expression and pretty much listener friendly whether or not she uses electronics.

There are four chamber music pieces and a nice new performance of her masterful violin concerto, “Graal Théâtre”. Saariaho is so prolific such that one can only do a sort of “snapshot” selection of her work on a single CD. A decent retrospective would likely require several more discs.

Jennifer Koh is without doubt one of the finest violinists working today, especially in contemporary music. She even broke ground in one of the coolest blind castings in contemporary performance playing Einstein in Glass’ opera, “Einstein on the Beach”. For those who are unfamiliar the role of Einstein requires a violinist wearing a wig who plays some mighty difficult violin music at different points during the opera. This writer heard her in performance of this role at the revival in Berkeley a few years ago and it is a mark of Koh’s expertise that she made the role her own. Her range (which includes more conventional repertoire like Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc.) is simply astounding and her technical ability puts her in competition for an ever growing list of commissions and other works she has added to her repertoire.

On this CD we get to hear Koh in the intimate settings of chamber music where the skills of listening to others is so critical as the individual voices weave their parts though the texture. While Saariaho is basically a well trained modernist romanticism and perhaps impressionism still remain a part of her palette. Joining Koh in the chamber pieces are: Nicholas Hodges, piano; Hsin Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith, cello; Anssi Karttunen, cello;

Of course the big showpiece here is the violin concerto from 1994. This large scale work is actually as lucid and detailed as her chamber music, albeit with a larger range of sounds. It is a masterful composition and this appears to be the second recording it has received though apparently the first recording of the version with reduced orchestra played by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington (another reason to want this album). I wasn’t able to locate the other recording with Gidon Kremer but it is a good sign when you have more than one top soloist recording your work. Brava Ms. Koh and Ms. Saariaho! This is a collaboration blessed by the Gods. Saariaho x Koh = bliss.

Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


BIS- 9048 SACD

 

The choice of repertoire, performers, and the quality of their recordings make any BIS records release worthy of attention.  This two disc set is a fine example.  Three major choral/orchestral works which celebrate the justly proud Finnish culture are given very fine performances in this live recording from 2016.

The earliest work, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo Op. 7 (1892) is one of the less recognized masterpieces by Finland’s best known composer.  Based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, this massive symphony has acquired a bit of its own mythology.  Though several recordings of this work now exist the world world premiere recording by the late Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) from the early 1970s brought this neglected masterpiece to a larger listening audience.  The intelligent liner notes by Andrew Barnett (and Olli Kortekangas) document and dispel the myths that Sibelius suppressed all or portions of this work which was premiered in 1892 yet had to wait until after the composer’s death in 1957 to receive its first twentieth century performance.  

In fact it seems more likely that the large forces required along with programmers’ preference for the composer’s later masterpieces were responsible for the unfortunate neglect of the present work.  It was the more romantically inclined myth of mysterious oppression that greeted Berglund’s triumphant premiere recording and this reviewer recalls being both charmed and intrigued by it.  Whatever the story the music is now a recognized early triumph by its creator and it is given a gorgeous reading by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, (principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra which plays powerfully and definitively.

So why a second disc?  Well, Maestro Vänskä saw fit to commission a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas to serve as a companion piece to Kullervo and, then include a version with chorus of Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia.  Together these three works would very satisfyingly fill an entire concert program.

Olli Kortekangas (1955- ) chose poetry by Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa and composed a 7 movement work (three are interludes for orchestra alone) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of modern Finnish migration to the United States.  The work, Migration (2014), is similar in orchestration with its use of male chorus and two soloists backed by a large orchestra.  The composer’s style is a sort of 21st century romantic style with tasteful modern touches.  

The focus of this fine new work is an affirmation of Finnish culture and its impact on the United States.  It seems both fitting and satisfying then that this program conclude with the landmark work of Finnish pride and nationalism, Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia (1899).  But rather than just another reading of this classic of the concert hall  Vänskä chooses to do a version with chorus.  This was not the composer’s original intent but this version fits remarkably well in the context of this album.  

This is a very enjoyable album, well conceived and executed in every way.  Soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala sing their roles with skill and passion as does the YL Male Voice Choir.  The applause track at the end of the Finlandia performance echoed the emotional experience of this reviewer and will likely do so for anyone who chooses to avail themselves of this fine example of recording art.