Sunday 5 April 2015

A fine new disc from CPO of chamber works by Aulis Sallinen, in first class performances, deserves a wide audience

The Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen (b.1935) studied with Aarre Merikanto (1893-1958) and Joonas Kokkonen (1921-1996) at the Helsinki Academy where he returned to teach in 1970.

Although he began in the 1960s, melding triads with avant-garde techniques, he later revived standard forms and harmonies, putting them together in very contemporary ways though giving his music a strong tonal base. His works to date include operas, vocal and choral works, orchestral works including eight symphonies, concertos, chamber and instrumental works.

It is his chamber works that feature on a new release from CPO performed by Elina Vähälä (violin) , Arto Noras (cello)  and Ralf Gothóni (piano)

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Sallinen’s Cello Sonata, Op. 86 (2004) was commissioned by the Naantali Music Festival and first performed there on 10th June 2005 by the artists and dedicatees on this recording, Arto Noras and Ralf Gothóni. It is in four linked movements opening with Barcarole, con variazione where the piano introduces an expansive motif quickly joined by the cello that soon develops a theme above the simple little undulating piano motif. This is a rather lovely movement that has some subtle little piano dissonances as the tension rises. It varies rhythmically at times as the melody is woven, before increasing in tempo for a more frantic passage, creating a swirl of textures from piano and cello. The music eventually slows to a hesitant passage with the cello playing pizzicato before bringing hushed cello phrases over a sturdier piano theme, slowly falling to the hushed coda.

In the Serenata the piano again opens with a little motif that is picked out. The cello soon adds pizzicato phrases as the piano theme is developed before a little rhythmic variation. These players reveal many lovely, subtle little features of Sallinen’s writing. The tempo increases in little runs but soon settles again as the cello develops a more flowing theme. The music later grows in dynamics with some fine pizzicato phrases against a faster piano theme before leading to the sudden coda.

An offset rhythmic theme for cello and piano opens the Scherzo, quasi l'ultimo tango developing into a tango rhythm with the cello spinning a lovely melody, later taken by the piano. There are some lovely, unusual textures from the cello as the movement progresses, with so many varying rhythms and tempi in this rather intoxicating movement.

The cello opens Il modo grave e lirico – Epilogo, introducing a quiet little motif before firmer piano chords are played. We are led through some stirring passages with deeper richer cello lines and fine fluent piano phrases, becoming increasingly passionate. Later a tango rhythm is hinted at momentarily before bold piano chords presage the coda that ends on a rich cello chord.

From a Swan Song, Op. 67 (1990-91) was also commissioned by the Naantali Music Festival for the First International Paulo Cello Competition in Helsinki in November 1991. The title Swan Song is drawn from Sallinen’s opera Palatsi where in the final Act the King sings a plaintive swansong.

Strident repeated piano notes open this work to which the cello delivers phrases in reply before it slowly and subtly develops a theme with a freely developed piano accompaniment. There are some harmonic passages for cello as this strange music develops, soon picking up in tempo before slowing again. The repeated piano notes re-appear before the music speeds again in this rather quixotic piece. Soon the theme is developed by the cello in a richer more flowing manner but the quixotic, hesitant manner returns. Later the music suddenly increases in tempo again, pushing forward with both players responding to each others phrases and motifs, often anguished and passionate, almost schizophrenic at times in its mood changes.

There are longer breathed, richer cello passages, strange cello harmonies and frenetic faster passages amongst the fragmented moments where these players respond with terrific passion and musicianship. Towards the end there is a lovely quieter section, lovely cello textures and a beautiful sensitive piano accompaniment, rising in intensity before a hauntingly strange coda.

Again commissioned by the Naantali Music Festival Piano Trio, Les Visions Fugitives, Op. 96 (2009-10) draws on the idea of ‘the sensuous world of a painter going gradually blind…with only the support of memory…he knows how the yellow and blue colour sound together, but does not hear, nor see it anymore.’ It is in three sections played without a break.

Moderato is opened by the piano with pizzicato cello before the strings provide a longer held theme. The opening motif and longer held theme alternate before each player develops the music. It soon develops rhythmically and flows quickly forward in surges, the short phrases bringing a quizzical feel. There are some very fine string textures and harmonies as the music slows. There is more hesitancy as we fall to a quiet mysterious section. With the adagio there is a sense of foreboding and melancholy with the piano bringing a ghostly feel against the strings. Little downward runs for piano and strings appear, trying to be playful but disappear. A piano flourish announces the allegro where the music tries to gain energy but never seems to manage it, the hesitancy remaining, seemingly unable to shake off the melancholy.  The music does eventually gain a little momentum though still anxious in feel, soon falling back. Strange little textures and motifs scurry by in this deeply troubled music that grows slower and darker with a melancholy, haunted atmosphere before the hushed coda.

I have to admit to being an immense admirer of Aulis Sallinen so this fine new disc is most welcome. The performances are first class and the recording is extremely good. With excellent booklet notes from Martin Anderson I hope this new release deserves a wide audience.

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