Wilhelmina Smith, a Revelatory Solo Cello Release


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I think I can say with assurance that the unaccompanied cello repertoire begins with the Bach solo cello suites. But the concept of this kind of music being worthy of public performance began with Pablo Casals in the early 20th century. Indeed the lovely Bach suites regularly get recorded and performed live pretty frequently with appreciative audiences.

What is generally lesser known is that there exists a large repertoire of unaccompanied cello music which was created in the post Bach era. That’s nearly 300 years and most of this repertory remains largely unknown and, in may cases, unperformed. Rather than attempting to list these I refer the interested listener to the list here on Wikipedia. The list is not exhaustive but it is a fair representation of the extant music.

Wilhelmina Smith, having already produced a fine recording of unaccompanied cello music by Finnish composers Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho, now surveys works of this genre by Danish composers Per Nørgård (1932- ) and Poul Ruders (1949- ).

The quite excellent liner notes by Søren Schauser do a great job of providing a context and a basic analysis of what the listener is hearing in these works. He also provides some historical context and a fellow Dane’s impression of the deeper associations which might be felt by a Nordic audience. But these works are not insular in their intent or their presentation. Make no mistake that these are major works which will speak to all who care to hear.

I have made no secret of my personal love of the music from the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Faroe Islands, and Iceland). And this disc serves to bolster my enthusiasm further. These works span the years 1953 to 1976 and embody largely neoclassical and and post-romantic styles which are very friendly to the ear.

The sheer nakedness of a performance on an instrument usually embedded in a larger context (accompanied by piano or electronics, in a string quartet, or in a symphony orchestra) brings an intense intimacy to the performance. The performer is fully exposed and the music relies on exactly that intensity. Yes, this is a recording but it is not difficult to imagine these performances eliciting reverent silences, of breaths being held, of a level of engagement that elicits rapt attentions.

Completists will be thrilled to have all three of Per Nørgård’s three Solo Cello Sonatas. Nørgård, an internationally regarded master, is better known for this large orchestral works and concertos but here we get to experience him at his most intimate. The first so called “sonatas” appears to take a more classical approach. Even the naming of the three movements (Lento ma espansivo – Allegro non troppo, Tranquillo, Allegro con brio) suggest a more classical approach. This largely tonal piece has both romantic and neoclassical aspects with soaring melodies and classical developments. The second sonata, subtitled “In due tempi” is unusual in that its two movements are separated by compositional dates separated by 27 years. One thinks of Felix Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture separated by 17 years from the subsequent incidental music. So we have a first movement form 1953 followed by a second movement from 1980. This second sonata has much in common with the sound world of the first but the second movement does hint at a more mature style in kind with other works from that historical period. The third sonata, in three movements as was the first, is from 1999 and it is most clearly of a later style. It carries the subtitle, “What – is the Word!”. The movement titles (Prayer, Outcry, Prayer II) are clues to the more deeply existential mood of this piece. Still using basically tonal language, this sonata seems to describe more painful and introspective moods.

Now we come to a work by Poul Ruders (1949- ), “Bravourstudien” (L’Homme Armé Variations) (1976). This is essentially a set of variations on the medieval tune, “L’Homme Armé” (The Armed Man). It is cast in 10 movements (Overture, Recitative, Serenade 1, Potpourri, Etude, Intermezzo, Fantasia, Serenade 2, Finale: Variation classique, L’Homme armé). It is perhaps more deconstruction than classical variation but one need know nothing of the composer’s compositional techniques to appreciate the results.

This is not the first recordings of these works but these performances and the clean Ondine records sound make this release a welcome addition to the ever expanding discography of solo cello repertory and the music of Nordic master composers. You must hear this.

Wilhelmina Smith Plays Contemporary Solo Cello Works


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Ondine

The selection of repertoire suggests that this release is targeted Stan audience which enjoys contemporary solo cello music.  No pairing with earlier established warhorses such as Brahms Cello Sonatas, and no electronics either.  Just a highly skilled musician and her incredible technique navigating these relatively recent examples of this genre from two acknowledged living masters, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho.  It is a daring and unusual program for cellist Wilhelmina Smith but it works as a dazzling display of her skills.

Salonen is, of course, one of the best known composer conductors working today.  This reviewer’s only other exposure to Salonen’s work thus far has been the gorgeous Cello Concerto reviewed here.  No question that this is a name worthy of your attention.

And if you enjoy new music you will be familiar with Kaija Saariaho (1952- ).  Since she first burst on the scene in the early 1980s she has produced one success after another in pretty much all genres.  Like Salonen she is Finnish by birth but has taken her rightful place as an internationally renowned composer.

The performances are virtuosic and deeply felt. The complex range of sounds evoked are rich and stunning.  Highly recommended.

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.