The small French label Aeon is one of the up-and-coming companies for contemporary music, and here they've released Kaija Saariaho's cello works in performance by Alexis Descharmes. The six pieces here are for either for solo cello (sometimes with electronics), for cello and bass clarinet, or for cello and flute. Nearly all Saariaho's cello works have been dedicated to Anssi Karttunen, once her classmate at the Sibelius Academy and now a mature master of contemporary cello repertoire. I tend to see Karttunen's recordings as definitive, and Descharmes either approaches this reference point or strays from it.
"Petals" for cello and electronics (1988) takes its musical material from Saariaho's string quartet "Nymphea" written earlier in the same year. At this point in her career, Saariaho's focus was on timbre, and the piece consists of shifting soundscapes based on changes in bow pressure, dynamic, and playing sul tasto versus sul ponticello. There is little in the way of melody here, but the sonic range explored in the piece keeps attention throughout. The Karttunen recording was released in 1998 by the Petals label of the Finnish Music Information Center, Descharmes' performance is just as entertaining.
"Oi Kuu" for bass clarinet and cello (1990) is one of Saariaho's least known pieces. It's scoring is peculiar, as both instruments have a similar range. Coming from the same era as the orchestral diptych "Du cristal ...a la fumee", the piece exhibits a similar ambience pierced by sharp tones. It's a nice piece, but the effect works better with orchestral resources. I've found no other recording of he piece and have nothing to compare Descharmes' performance with.
"Pres" for cello and electronics (1992) is a solo work in four movements based mainly on the cello part in "Amers", a sort of concerto for cello, orchestra, and electronics which the composer wrote earlier that year. The material was derived entirely from the sound of a cello string pressed until its pure tone became noise, and the possibilities of the instrument are expanded by a special microphone developed at IRCAM that can capture each of the four strings in order to amplify or electronically alter their sound separately. Electronics are also used to bring in recordings of sloshing sounds of the ocean waves. While Saariaho's interest is still on timbre, there's a strong dramatic arc here, with the solo cello arising from nothingness on an E-flat-G trill, playing an ostinato with natural harmonics, and finally being surrounded by electronics. All in all the piece is an awesome sonic experience. Descharmes matches the Karttunen performance on Ondine, which is no mean feat, and the sounds of the electronics are better mixed here.
In "Spins and Spells" for solo cello (1997) Saariaho seeks to restore a old-fashioned sound to the cello through using a Baroque scordatura. Her writing had softened somewhat around the middle of the 1990s, and here we see melodic motifs interspersed with expositions of colour and texture. It's one of the few pieces by Saariaho I don't care much for, and since I don't get it at all I can't compare Descharmes' performance here to that by Karttunen on the Petals disc.
"Mirrors" for flute and cello (1997) first appeared as a game on Naive's Saariaho CD-ROM in 1999, where one could assemble its various parts in whatever order one pleases. In each of its sections, based on rhythm, pitch, timbre, or gesture, he flute always plays symmetrically to the cello in various ways. The flute part also has the performer speaking a text among the music (a technique later widely used in Saariaho's flute concerto "L'aile du songe"), which is taken from a 14th-century French roman. It's a cute piece, but fairly lightweight. Here Descharmes is joined by flautist Jeremie Fevre, and their competition comes not from Karttunen, but from Lesley Olson and Scott Roller on Kairos. Both are fine, but I slightly prefer this performance for its faster tempos (the piece lasts twenty seconds less here than on Kairos).
"Sept papillons" for solo cello (2000) was the first piece Saariaho wrote after her opera "L'amour de loin", and makes something of a return to form after several years of writing overly melodic, ocassionally banal music. Again Saariaho explores possibilities of timbre, and the sounds produced by the cello are so otherworldly I could hardly believe that no electronics are involved. It's also emotionally moving; the second piece here is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful things I've ever heard in Karttunen's performance on Ondine. Unfortunately, Descharmes really drops the ball here with a graceless, often reckless performance where the beauty of the piece is often still present but greatly diminished.
The performances here were recorded at IRCAM, so one can expect sound of the highest quality. The liner notes are well done, containing background on the pieces written by Descharmes, biographies of the performers, and remarks by Saariaho about why the cello is so special for her. Saariaho fans should check out the disc, the music here is good and the performances are often exciting, but do get Karttunen's first.
(Verified purchase from a Helsinki music shop.)