On a more intimate scale, Naxos offers (Ondine ODE 1294-2) American cellist Wilhelmina Smith in a stimulating array of solo pieces by two of Finland's greatest modern musical luminaries, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho. Three works by Salonen are followed by four of Saariaho's, linked by a chiacona by seventeenth-century Modenese composer Giuseppe Colombi that inspired the last of Salonen's pieces (Sarabande per un coyote) and the first of Saariaho's (Dreaming Chaconne). (Both are components of the Mystery Variations, commissioned from thirty-one leading composers by Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen in 2010.)
Opening the disc, Salonen's early Yta III (1987) is the third in a series of solo pieces he wrote for various instruments, putting into practice his notion of pushing a performer to, in his own words, "the very limits of what is physical (and sometimes mentally) possible." It's followed by the disc's longest work, his three-movement Knock, breathe, shine (2010); the title is taken from "Batter my heart," one of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, and as the booklet's annotator, conductor Mark Mandarano observes, it serves as "a fitting metaphor for what the performer must be prepared to achieve-to surrender oneself to the inspiration of the composer."
Saariaho's Petals (1988) was, she recalls, "written abruptly in a few days, but evidently after a long unconscious preparation…In bringing together…very opposite modes of expressions, I aimed to force the interpreter to stretch [her] sensibility." Her Sept Papillons, begun during rehearsals for her opera L'Amour de loin at Salzburg in 2000, offers a striking contrast to that work's large-scale forces and emotions with her seven evocations of (in Mandarano's words) "the lighter-than-air fragility of butterflies." Closing the disc is Spins and Spells (1996), whose "sonority reminds me"-"of the music and the instrumental colors of another age, far older than those of the cello that we know, although seen and transformed again through my own universe."