Mystery and Scientific Exploration in Nordic Cello Concertos

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Will it be interpreted as a minor snub issued in the direction of featured soloist Jakob Kullberg if one says the standout selection of his new album of cello concertos is the one where the engineers get the electronics exquisitely correct?

It shouldn’t – but not just because that is the case here. Kaija Saariaho’s Amers is the only non-premiere recording on the cellist’s new album, helpfully subtitled “Nordic Cello Concertos,” but, as the most interesting piece and the best use of studio-as-instrument here, it’s still the top draw.

The 2001 premiere recording of Amers — with Saariaho mainstay Annsi Karttunen taking the solo part and Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra — has been the only offering for a decade now. While it’s done its bit, this new version by Kullberg and the New Music Orchestra (led by Szymon Bywalec) sounds obviously superior. The cello’s extended technique never sounds dryly sequestered from the electronics and ensemble, but fully submerged within the other textures – so that the soloist is both perceived and not by turns, in that prismatically mysterious way of Saariaho’s.

Part of the success in this recording might have to do with advances in studio approaches to IRCAM-influenced writing since 2001; in any case, Saariaho herself assisted in the final mix here, after the February 2012 recording date. The playing sounds faultless.

The other two pieces here are interesting, but not quite at her level. Per Norgard’s Momentum (2009) is clearly an important work to Kullberg (the second movement was presented to him on the day of his wedding). Its four movements reflect four sharply divergent approaches to concerto form: there’s the soloist-leads-the-orchestra motivic development of the opening (“Monologue”), a series of trading-partner duos in “Together,” followed by the layered chaos of “Multiplicity,” and then a return to more clearly articulated separation and instrumental solitude in the closing “Infinity.” There are striking effects in each section (especially some wild tone rows in the finale), but the piece seems more like a scientific charting of possible approaches to a concerto than a totally realized whole.

Arne Nordheim, by contrast, offers a one-movement Tenebrae – his take on the Catholic service that is conducted under the metaphoric weight of Christ’s last hours. It’s not program-music per se, but there are moments that are obviously suggestive of the crucifixion story: a harried collection of brass voices chasing the saintly cello and eventually obscuring its lonely sound, or else a gnarled, solo moment of muted pain translated as a thorny strummed chord by Kullberg. It veers in the opposite direction of Norgard’s piece, by committing to a vision and sticking with it; potentially, it might weary a listener over the course of 25 minutes. For a synthesis of those approaches — for a modernist approach that is both full of mystery and scientific exploration — look to the Saariaho.

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