Saturday 21 September 2013

The string quartet, META4, with Anna Laakso (piano) and Marko Myöhänen (electronics) bring some superb chamber music by Kaija Saariaho on a new release from Ondine

I was extremely taken by Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone which I reviewed in May 2013

Born in 1952, she is now one of Finland’s finest composers with a long list of fine compositions behind her, including a violin concerto Graal théâtre, written for Gidon Kremer in 1995; two works dedicated to Dawn Upshaw,  Château de l’âme premiered at the Salzbourg Festival in 1996; Lonh, a cycle of melodies for soprano and electronics premiered at the Wien Modern Festival in 1996; Oltra mar for orchestra and mixed choir, premiered in 1999 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; a flute concerto, Aile du songe,  composed for Camilla Hoitenga (2001); Nymphea Reflexion for string orchestra, dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach (2001); Orion for the Cleveland Orchestra (2002); and Quatre Instants, for soprano, piano/orchestra, for Karita Mattila, premiered in April 2003.

Many of her orchestral works, including some mentioned above, are available from Ondine (ODE 1113-2Q) in a four disc set which is really worthwhile acquiring.

She has been no less active with her chamber compositions, an aspect of her work that is now covered by a new release from Ondine tantalisingly listed as Volume 1. This new disc features the string quartet META4 whose players are Antti Tikkanen (violin), Minna Pensola (violin), Atte Kilpeläinen (viola) and Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello)
ODE 1222-2

Meta4 was founded in 2001 and is one of Finland's most successful string quartets, winning first prize at the International Shostakovich String Quartet Competition in Moscow in 2004 launching their international career. 

They went on to win the Joseph Haydn Chamber Music Competition in Vienna in 2007 before receiving the Ministry of Finland Award in recognition of their international success. Meta4 was also a BBC New Generation artist for 2008-2010. Meta4 performs actively throughout the world, and has appeared at such venues as the Wiener Konzerthaus, King's Place and Wigmore Hall, London, the Auditorio Nacional, Madrid, Cité de la Musique, Paris and Stockholms Konserthus and Shanghai . Since 2008 Meta4 has been quartet in residence at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. In 2012 their recording of Shostakovich String Quartets 3, 4 and 7 for Hänssler was voted Record of the Year by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE as well as being awarded the Emma prize as Classical Album of the Year.

Also performing on this release are Anna Laakso (piano) and Marko Myöhänen (electronics). Anna Laakso  has worked with John Storgårds and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra as well as performing at several Finnish music festivals and European venues. She is the founder and artistic director of the chamber music festival Valoa Kamariin in Rovaniemi, Finland

Saariaho’s Tocar for violin and piano was written in 2010 and was commissioned by the International Sibelius Violin Competition as a compulsory piece for the intermediate round. In this work, Saariaho looked at how the two instruments, played with different techniques, could touch each other. Tocar is Spanish for ‘to touch’ or ‘to play’.

Shifting violin phrases with sparse piano chords open this work with microtones adding to the expressiveness of the piece. Slowly the melody develops and richens as the piano provides a more solid accompaniment. The music becomes more dramatic as the piano part becomes more florid but quietens toward the end with some lovely hushed trills from the violin Saariaho has created here a work that combines passionate melody with music that stretches instrumental technique.

Minna Pensola and Anna Laakso are first rate in this music.

The two movement Vent nocturne for viola and electronics (2006) came about after the composer read a bilingual edition of the poetry of George Trakli where the German and French were printed side by side.

I Sombres miroires is based on the symmetrical idea suggested by the title, Dark Mirrors.  Hovering viola sounds open this work before the entry of subtle electronic sounds, as though breathing. The viola develops the material more by way of changing the textures and drama. After arpeggios from the viola, there is a static viola line with a gently resonant electronic sound – as though water on shingle. Eventually the music becomes more agitated with dramatic viola playing with an increasingly powerful electronic accompaniment, at times simulating the sound of drums.

When the music quietens, with gentler arpeggios on viola, the electronic sounds are like a gentle wind. Towards the end of the movement the music fades out but quietly returns with a final viola phrase to lead straight into the second movement, II Soupirs de l’obscur where a sighing viola plays against quietly delicate electronics creating a sound of wind and brushed cymbals. The viola becomes more anguished, playing lovely melodic phrases against a haunting electronic accompaniment. There are drooping phrases from the viola in a spellbinding moment so wonderfully realised by Atte Kilpeläinen. As the viola slowly weaves its oddly hypnotic phrases the electronic sounds subtly alter. Kilpeläinen is terrific in the double stopped drooping phrases and, indeed, throughout. The music just fades away at the end.

Calices for violin and piano was commissioned in 2009 by the Funacion Albeniz (Albeniz Foundation) for the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia (Queen Sofia School of Music) in Madrid. Re-interpreting material form her earlier violin concerto Graal théâtre, Saariaho produced a three movement work, Calices (Chalices).

At the beginning of Calices I the piano picks out notes as the violin enters, hovering around a theme with some pizzicato notes. Soon the music grows increasingly fiery, though still static in nature. The piano introduces rippling phrases as the violin increases in drama with some pretty virtuosic playing from Antti Tikkanen who extracts some wonderful sounds from his instrument, at times delicate then violently dramatic. The piano part is superbly played by Anna Laakso.

Calices II opens with long dramatic notes from the violin with a sparse piano accompaniment. Soon the violin plays dramatic gritty chords that interrupt the quiet phrases. Occasionally the piano provides a sudden louder flourish but overall this is a quieter movement. The piano opens Calices III with bold descending chords as the violin enters playing more gritty textures that continually descend into quieter contrasts. There is more fine playing from both artists and, towards the end, the music quietens as the two instruments seem to find a balance.

Spins and Spells for cello solo (1997) is another competition piece, this time written for the Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris. It uses a tuning method known as scordatura, popular amongst some baroque composers and which involves tuning two of the strings of the instrument down, a method that Saariaho has used to create new sonorities and harmonics.

This short work allows the cellist to explore so many facets of cello tone and technique. A glowing melody soon emerges but is quickly submerged into curious little phrases and sounds. More agitated phrases occur only to fall to quieter reflective passages. The upper and lower reaches of the instrument are explored, superbly played by Tomas Djupsjöbacka, who takes every opportunity to explore the possibilities of his instrument creating some wonderful sounds. There are lovely delicate harmonics that hardly sound like a cello so finely created are they as the works fades to a hushed coda.

Saariaho’s Nocturne for violin solo was written for a concert in 1994 in memory of the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski who had died that year. Saariaho was working on her violin concerto Graal théâtre at the time and again drew on some of the material for this short work.

A long held note develops quietly with fine textures before a mournful theme arrives. This is repeated before the violin develops the theme in a more robust fashion with arpeggios weaving a lovely texture as the violin becomes more astringent. The music quietens with alternate pizzicato notes and shimmering chords that still have an astringent, brittle sound until the music just fades. Minna Pensola gives a fabulous performance of this strangely compelling piece.

The players of META4 come together for Nymphea for string quartet and live electronics (1987), a work that extends the boundaries of what a string quartet can achieve. The title of this work alludes to the Water Lilies of the impressionist painter Claude Monet but rather than merely conjure up images of Monet’s paintings, the composer has looked at the symmetry of the structure and contrasts in the lily ponds.

It is the longest work on this disc and opens with strange electronic sounds with the strings slowly sounding through, working over a theme before creating a dissonant harmony against the electronics in a haunting passage. The music becomes more dynamic and so blended are the quartet and electronics that they tend to merge, creating some unusually fine sounds. The forward momentum is sustained by the constantly, though subtly, shifting and changing harmonics, textures and colours. This is truly a wonderful achievement from this quartet who, with Marko Myöhänen weaving some beautiful live electronic sounds. Eventually there is a rapid descending passage for the strings, quite stunning and, again, terrifically blended with the live electronic music.

Later there is more superb playing as the music becomes quite violent before calming to an ethereal passage full of strange colours and harmonies. Electronic breathing sounds appear together with quietly muttering human voices. The invention and ever changing sounds in this work are a wonder. Though the music fades to nothing it slowly emerges again with odd drooping sounds from the quartet against quiet still sounds from the electronics. The string harmonies are quite astounding as they make their leisurely way along with these other worldly electronic sounds. There is another more dynamic section with upward and downward phrases brilliantly played by this quartet. Lightening quick outbursts lead into more violent sounds that again fall to the depths with strange electronic sounds from which emerges a lone violin melody against strange harmonies. Human voices again appear as the music fades away.

This is a beautifully recorded disc with some superb chamber music from this fine composer. The excellent booklet notes are by that authority on Finnish music, Kimmo Korhonen.

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