Wilhelmina Smith Plays Salonen & Saariaho

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SALONEN: YTA III. knock, breathe, shine. Sarabande per un coyote. COLOMBI: Chiacona. SAARIAHO: Dreaming Chaconne. Petals. Sept papillons. Spins and Spells / Wilhelmina Smith, cel / Ondine ODE 1294

 Cellist Wilhelmina Smith prefers to walk “the road not taken” by most of her fellows. She is a strong champion of modern cello works, which probably stems from her having worked as guest first cello in the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the adventurous conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2000. Winner of the 1997 international Leonard Rose Competition, she was also praised by the late Henri Dutilleux as “outstanding” in her performance of his solo cello piece, and also worked with Salonen in 2010 to play his cello concerto. Here, she gives us solo works by both Salonen and Kaija Saariaho, with ancient composer Giuseppe Columbi’s Chiacona tossed in for contrast because Saariaho’s Dreaming Chaconne is based on it.

Alas, I was not provided a booklet to download with this CD, so I can’t tell you much about the origin or gestation of these works, but as in the case of all music the scores speak for themselves. YTA III opens with the cello playing very high up in its range, and although by the 1:30 mark it seems to devolve into effects (spiccato, ghostly portamento, etc.), it is a riveting piece to say the least. Somehow or other, Salonen manages to tie all of it together to make a coherent, if strange, musical statement, and there is no question that Smith’s commitment to the score, along with her stunning technique, are part of what impresses the listener. In short, it’s a stunning piece if not necessarily a likeable one.

The tripartite knock, breathe, shine is no less challenging technically but, to my ears, rather more coherent as musical structure. A series of sharply-struck chords (mostly in C) alternate with angular, choppy single notes in the first section, but the music has more of a “line” to it and the ear picks up on the development section much easier. The next section, breathe, is the slow movement, and here Salonen does indeed create a surprisingly lovely melodic line, which Smith plays with great affection and outstanding arco bowing. In shine, the music assumes a sort of midway point between lyricism, with yet another excellent melodic line, and edgy effects, but they are tied into the overall fabric of the music with much better results. This is clearly an outstanding piece, one that many great cellists should take up for their recitals.

Sarabande per un coyote begins with the cellist strumming chords on her instrument, as if it were a huge guitar, which then leads into bowed passages including chords as if in a solo cello sonata. Smith then plays the Colombi Chiacona in that nauseating, ahistoric straight tone that too many modern musicians are addicted to. (I doubt that they’re ever learn they are wrong; the academic mafia has convinced them that this is correct styling.) Happily, we then get Saariaho’s Dreaming Chaconne, a sort of buzz-effect piece that sounds like a swarm of locusts. I wasn’t much impressed. And, alas, Petals is the same kind of music, all cheap effects with no substance.

The multi-movement Papillons began the same way (apparently, Saariaho is really hung up on this style of writing), but to my ears it had more interest as a composition because it actually went somewhere. In the third piece, “Calmo, con tristezza,” the music actually becomes somewhat more musical; I liked this one very much.

Truthfully, I’ve come to realize that a lot of modern music (but certainly not all) is geared towards shock value and has very little to do with actual musical principles. Even such formerly avant-garde composers as Stravinsky, Ligeti and Zimmermann would probably be quite shocked by a lot of this material, but if this is your thing, this CD will certainly satisfy you. As for me, I really liked Salonen’s knock, breathe, shine and a couple of the Papillons, and Smith is unquestionably a great cellist.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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