These half-dozen pieces are wonderfully alluring, poetic explorations of sound. From the earliest work, Petals, composed in 1988 for cello, with optional live electronic modification, to the latest, Sept Papillons, written in 2000, Saariaho probes the cello's colouristic possiblities to their limit and beyond. The most substantial piece is Près (1992), a 20-minute, three-movement essay inspired by Gauguin and Saint-Jean Perse. It's a powerful, visionary, haunting work, and Descharmes plays it beguilingly, as indeed he does everything on the disc. The bass clarinettist Nicolas Baldeyrou and the flautist Jérémie Fèvre play equally affectingly, and the recording is appropriately warm.Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times, 5/14/2006
A note at the front of the booklet records Kaija Saariaho’s views on writing for the cello, her favourite instrument, she confesses, because of ‘its huge compass’: ‘the cello’s low register, combined with harmonics, offers a rich palette of timbres’. That’s an instance of good old Finnish understatement: the range of sounds she produces from the cello – occasionally aided here by flute, bass clarinet and electronics – is downright astonishing.
Inspired by her early contact with the ‘spectral’ school of composers in Paris, Saariaho goes into the constituent elements of the sound a cello makes, from the scraping of the bow on the bridge to ethereal harmonics, the results spanning the gamut from the coarse and ugly (if you judge by more conservative standards) to the weirdly beautiful, and all contributing to the dramatic effect of the music: there’s almost the narrative power of an entire opera in a work like Petals.
By the time of Sept Papillons, Saariaho is using more conventional means of sound-production but still generating a peacock’s tail of colours. The easier-going approach is part of the general lightening of style, but the Papillons were also written as relaxation during the preparations for the first production of her first opera, L’Amour de loin.
Alexis Descharmes brings an evangelist’s passion and commitment to the performance of these six pieces. Martin Anderson, Finnish Music Quarterly, 6/1/2006
Kaija Saariaho’s music is about nothing so much as the exploration of sound itself. This excellent disc contains her complete works thus far for solo cello, with or without another solo instrument and with or without electronic treatment. There’s always a refinement, an elegance, in what Saariaho does, but it’s also characterised by an appealing immediacy – a combination that it would be hard not to attribute to the reaction of French influences (she’s lived in Paris for a long time now) upon her Finnish background. Her music beguiles with it ever-changing timbres and textures, its gestures rhetorical and poetic, its constant quest to seek out and realise the implications, physical (her music is firmly based on the hierarchies of the harmonic series) and emotional, of sound. One might suspect that using a solo cello restricts her, but in fact the very opposite is true. Saariaho delights in finding sound-worlds within sound-worlds, rather as one might home in on a graphic representation of a Mandelbrot series, finding beautiful, intricate new patterns that stretch to infinity. In the young cellist Alexis Descharmes she has found a magnificent champion of her art.
The material for the opening work, Petals, derives from the piece that was its immediate predecessor, Nymphae for string quartet. The work’s point is not just the variety of articulations and methods of playing but the fact that Saariaho specifies smooth progression between them rather than sharp contrast. The ad libitum live electronic treatments serve to enhance that principle, adding colour and space, exaggerating the subtle play of harmonics. Oi Kuu is for cello and bass clarinet, and the wind instrument serves to soften, to make more intimate Saariaho’s approach, though the piece is not without elements of theatre, as the quickening of pace and harshening of timbre two thirds of the way through makes clear. At the same time a whole new range of colours is introduced, the bass clarinet’s multiphonics complementing the cello’s double-stopped harmonics, offering sounds of relatively pure wave-form, and the incidental noises of rattling keys and escaping breath also serendipitously taking place as part of the work’s fabric.
Sometimes Saariaho hits on simple formal concepts and runs with them. There are two instances here. Spins and Spells, for cello alone, alternates ‘Spinning’ motifs that undergo slow or sudden metamorphosis with ‘Spell’ passages which are static, mysterious explorations of texture and colour. It was written for the Rostropovich Competition in Paris and uses scordatura tuning (B flat-G-C sharp-A), which, according to the composer, summons sound-colours from the Baroque era. Mirrors, for cello and flute, is a short work in which the performers have some choice over how events are ordered, with the overriding rule that the chosen combination of fragments must always obey ‘mirror’ principles. Saariaho’s own arrangement of her fragments works well.
But the disc ends with a magnificent large-scale piece, the three-movement Près for cello and electronics, conceived at the same time as Amers, Saariaho’s concerto for cello and ensemble, and sharing material with it. The title refers to Paul Gaugin’s painting Près de la mer (that of the concerto refers to Saint-Jean Perse’s eponymous poem). Both works are concerned with the element of water. The opening movement of Près develops a trill between a low E flat and its fourth harmonic (a high G) and ends with the sound of waves, The second movement, a sort of Scherzo, is an ostinato. And the third is a magnificent mélange of sounds, motions and colours, the electronics activated by the player, the working ending in a sublime, unequivocal E flat major. Stephen Pettit, International Record Review, 7/1/2006