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GRAMOPHONE reviews Salonen - Works for Cello by Wilhelmina Smith & Yo-Yo Ma

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Wilhelmina Smith's recording underlines one of the fundamental differences between these two composers born in Finland just six years apart. Salonen's music has long prioritised clarity even when it's not the stated aim (and, in one of these works, it is). Saariaho tends to drill down into an idea to the point of shattering it (not always intentionally). To some degree both write ‘traditional' Finnish nature music but where Salonen is more interested in biological and mathematical process (patterns or loops that spiral towards natural end-points and show their workings), Saariaho is fixated on the Nordic spectralist idea of tone colour dictating form.

Salonen created something big from small means in that piece, a truly Nordic conceit. But he sensed it could be something bigger, and elements of both ‘breathe' and ‘shine' made it into the composer's Cello Concerto (2017) for Yo Yo Ma. A few features distinguish this work: its constant mobility and directional movement, fuelled by a variety of rhythmic stimuli; its singular spaciousness resulting from delectable, deep orchestration; and the sense that a force of nature lies behind its combination of runic shamanism and scientific logic.

The second movement opens with another big bang while the exquisite harmonic clusters at the other end are surely descended from Rautavaara. The rhythmic impetus already mentioned feeds the third movement, pumping its increasingly erratic breathing and eventually driving it into some planet or other before the cadenza. Ma sweeps through the work as if in a single breath, no less bold than Smith and with a charisma that carries the music and the listener along. Not easy, given Salonen's determination to push soloists out on to a high wire. But it says something about composer and performer(s) that technical derring-do is not what you come away with.

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