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Saariaho X Koh

Release Date: 11/09/2018 
Label:  Cedille Records   Catalog #: 183  
Composer:  Kaija Saariaho
Performer:  Jennifer KohNicolas HodgesHsin-Yun HuangWilhelmina Smith,   ... 
Conductor:  Conner Gray Covington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Curtis 20/21 Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Imagine the modern performer. In the “old” days, let’s say around the 1950s, the pinnacle for an aspiring young violinist might be the Bach Sonatas and Partitas; the Beethoven sonatas; concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky; perhaps a little Wieniawski, Sarasate, Saint-Saens; Mozart. Yet, today’s most accomplished young performers–more of them than ever before, seemingly born with bow in hand and formidable technique in their DNA–have long ago gobbled up, crunched, and mastered this repertoire–and at younger and younger ages! Bartók you play while you eat your lunch. So what does one do then? Naturally, you look for new material, equally or more challenging.

If you are
Read more a performer, you are also a chooser of repertoire. And if you are a thoughtful, practical, intelligent chooser–as is our soloist here, Jennifer Koh–you make your choices not on what you can play, but rather on what draws you, what compels you, what calls you. Koh explains that when she first heard Kaija Saariaho’s music, she knew immediately that this was someone she related to; she “felt like I understood this person.” And so it has been in an ongoing relationship/collaboration between Koh and Saariaho–the composer attended Koh’s recording of these pieces–in which the violinist revels in Saariaho’s brash brushes of color and flagrant flaunting of string technique.

Each of the five works on this program is “about” something. There’s some particular event or scene or impression that inspired their creation. But for me, this is not the most important point. As the composer explains in reference to the origin of her concerto, Graal théâtre, but that I believe should be considered when listening to the entire program, what we hear is about “the theatricality of performance…and the tension between the composition as a fixed score and its realization by a soloist.” Koh has found music that has uniquely challenged and inspired her, and, because she is an exceptional artist, she is giving us something unique and inspired relative to her discovery. Again, she is not playing Beethoven or Mozart because that’s what you do as a violinist; she’s playing something new that has somehow reached deep into her being as an artist. She is like a great theatre actor, delivering a monologue in a manner most intensely personal and riveting, rooted in technique and experience, but making its effect because it’s born of sincere human emotion and an honest affinity for the subject.

No one can honestly describe this music as “beautiful” in the usual sense of the word. But that’s not the point either. Yes, it helps to know that one piece, Tocar, is about “touch”; another, Cloud Trio, was inspired by the changing forms of clouds; yet another, Light & Matter, “draws on the landscape of a city park as it changes with the light”. But we also know that Saariaho uses these ideas only as starting points, perhaps as a general guiding concept; from there, the music is music–abstract yet maintaining a relationship to the original themes of change, of time, of shifting light and sound, or initial conflict of purpose that may or may not resolve in unity.

Although there’s nothing new here in terms of string technique (it’s all been done), Saariaho freely–and effectively–employs the wide range of the violin’s voice; you might say she’s a bit too fond of the sul ponticello, but even so, her use of this device seems purposeful, never gratuitous. Saariaho also infuses these works with unlimited expressive opportunities, as nuanced as any utterances of the human voice.

While listening you always have to pay close attention to the interaction between and among the instruments; something is always being said, some effort being made to communicate something–a question and answer; an exploration of differences (between, say, violin and piano); an observation of movement, of light and color. In the midst of what may seem simply dissonant and unanchored, the violin, Koh’s violin, Koh’s voice, arising from the “tension between score and artistic interpretation”, compels our attention: we want to see what happens. And unlike a Bach sonata or Beethoven concerto (not to take anything away from the genius of those works), we really don’t know what will happen, how it will end. And whether we end up liking the music or not–it’s definitely not easy stuff, we know that Koh has taken us to that end honestly, as true as possible to the composer.

– ClassicsToday (David Vernier) Read less

Works on This Recording

Tocar by Kaija Saariaho
Performer:  Jennifer Koh (Violin), Nicolas Hodges (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2010; Finland 
Cloud Trio by Kaija Saariaho
Performer:  Hsin-Yun Huang (Viola), Jennifer Koh (Violin), Wilhelmina Smith (Cello)
Light and Matter by Kaija Saariaho
Performer:  Anssi Karttunen (Cello), Jennifer Koh (Violin), Nicolas Hodges (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: Finland 
Aure, for violin & viola by Kaija Saariaho
Performer:  Jennifer Koh (Violin), Anssi Karttunen (Cello)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2011 
Graal Théâtre by Kaija Saariaho
Performer:  Jennifer Koh (Violin)
Conductor:  Conner Gray Covington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Curtis 20/21 Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1994/1997; Paris, France 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Music of complexity & gravitas from the 20th & 21 November 11, 2018 By Dean Frey See All My Reviews "Kaija Saariaho's violin concerto Graal Théâtre, written in 1994 for Gidon Kremer, is one of the great works of the late 20th century, and a fine way to finish a varied program of music otherwise from the 21st century. Violinist Jennifer Koh stars in this new Cedille disc, with superb support from the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble under the direction of Conner Gray Covington. Graal Théâtre is based on a book of Arthurian legends by Florence Delay and Jacques Roubaud. Saariaho relates how this book inspired her, both in its balance between the personal experience of creation by the artist and the theatricality of performance, and in the modern confrontation of rich source material: for Delay and Roubaud the stories of Guenivere and Galahad, and for Saariaho the great violin concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. It's the connections to musical tradition and to the theatrical experience that matter here; beyond the positioning implied in the title there is no other connection with Arthurian legend, no musical program. As Roubaud himself said about poetry, "It says what it says by saying it." John Constable's amazing series of oil sketches of clouds is an attempt to capture en plaine air hugely complex and ever-changing meteorological effects in two dimensions. It must have taken manic energy to put oil paint on a fairly large (19" x 23") board at this level of detail in just an hour (on the back of the painting Constable noted "11 a.m." and "noon" as his starting and stopping times). In her Cloud Trio (2009) for violin, viola and cello, Kaija Saariaho also encountered clouds herself, up close in the French alps, as set out in Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti's superb liner essay (reproduced at her website here): "When you are high in the mountains, one often sees many different layers of clouds, having all different forms, speeds and textures. They are all different, and yet we all know that they all are clouds. These notions turned into musical ideas in this trio." With an atmospheric scientist in the family, and living in Canada's most perfect climate, we take our meteorological arts very seriously. Recently a cold front came through, and it was an amazing experience to watch the clouds hurry by from our balcony, while listening to this music. There's a fabulous feeling of atmosphere in Cloud Trio, and the same dimensional shifts one experiences when one looks at Constable's studies. Time passes, and stops; volumes form and dissipate. Three fine musicians communicate form, speed and texture, with a hint of the non-linear world underlying all weather systems. It was the meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz, after all, who developed chaos theory. I can, however, state definitively that this is a stunning performance. The rest of the program includes works of similar complexity and gravitas. Saariaho's interpretation of the natural world is continued in Light and Matter, from 2014, while she explores human connections in Tocar (2010). The moving Aure (2011) is a tribute to Henri Dutilleux on his 95th birthday, and shares with Dutilleux's Mémoire des ombres the same motto by Anne Frank: "Why us, why the star?" Saariaho's music nearly always seems to combine great power with delicacy. Koh shines in both; her touch is assured and passionate when required, with a gorgeous full sound but also the most tender fragility. This release leaves one in awe of the artistry of a great composer, a star soloist (and many other fine musicians), and of the natural wonders of our world." Report Abuse
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