Having composed "The King goes forth to France", the fifth string quartet and fifth symphony, as well as having started work on a fourth opera, Sallinen found time to write "Chamber Music III" in Provence during the winter of 1985/6. "These are light-hearted dances" he jests, while seriously emphasizing their nocturnal character.
One thing is certain: on 22 January 1986 Sallinen completed what deserves to become recognized as an original and important addition to the cello repertory. Furthermore, it is close to being a concerto in essence if not in outward form, and should be relished by any soloist with a first-class technique as well as strength to project and sustain inner energy. The request for such a work came from the Finnish cellist, Arto Noras, to whom the work is dedicated. He gave the first performance with the English Chamber Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Naantali Festival in June 1986.
The opening statement is dark and troubled: it will act as the shadow to the enchantment that is to follow. At the sign martellato (ie hammer the notes with a sharp, decisive stroke), the strings followed by a solo cello signal the awakening of the Don's nocturnal life. Dance No 1 begins: rhythmically, this is most unusual, for while the tempo appears to have quickened, the marking is, in fact the same as at the controlled opening.
The work proceeds on its suite-like, serenading course, where new themes follow each other and have their moments of variation and repetition. String textures constantly surprise us - pizzicato alla chitarra, chord clusters (poco ponticello) - then a striving, resilient marching onwards, leading to a fully shaped new dance, marked con legno. At the halfway point, our Don is joined by Sancho Leporello (solo violin) in a delicate duo concertante.
A semi-cadenza passage for the cellist is a moment of meditative response, accompanied by sighs from the strings. This moves towards an impassioned climax, which unexpectedly highlight's the tragic tone of the suite's opening. But then the closing Presto springs into life, made all the more delicious by the dancing strings. These strings, however, have a tendency to turn sour on the spot, as it were, at decisive moments. Yet our hero remains undaunted and unrepentant, as he launches into a gypsy dance. The presto threatens to peter out - but the music's inner life, freely guided as it is at times by rondo-form, makes a confident second appearance, finally to empty itself, with the coming of dawn. The listener may be left a little puzzled, yet also enchanted, as well as having been given - one hopes - new courage, by the yearning glimpses into another realm which the sleeping knight's dancing conveys.
© Ronald Weitzman 1987
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