CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Kaija Saariaho, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ingolf Wunder

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new releases featuring a remarkable Finnish composer, new violin music from Anne-Sophie Mutter and the all-Chopin début recording of an exciting new pianistic star.

KAIJA SAARIAHO: Clarinet Concerto “D’Om Le Vrai Sens” (2010). Kari Kriikku, clarinet; with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo.  Laterna magica (2008). Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Leino Songs (2007).  Anu Komsi, soprano; with Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Ondine 1173-2.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s music has been described as “other-worldly”, and it is certainly that.  It is atonal, seemingly not serial; it is neither linear nor homophonic; there are moments of intense lyricism, but primarily it is a musical language founded on sound masses and using these masses of different kinds to create various atmospheres.  Ms. Saariaho seems to have an affinity for percussion instruments, both of definite and indefinite pitch.  For the last slightly more than a century, many composers since Debussy have had the sound of a gamelan orchestra in the back of their heads. 

The songs (to poems by the Finnish poet Eino Leino, who died in 1926 at the age of 58) are one key to Saariaho’s essential style.  The voice takes the lead in all four of them, and only rarely is there an extended instrumental commentary on what the singer has just articulated.  Never is there imbalance:  the first one begins with an almost inaudible and quite sparse instrumental texture, opening the way for the singer to lead.  No one should ever assume that non-tonal music is not melodic: it can be melodic, in the hands of the right composer:  Ms. Saariaho has definite leanings in that direction. 

The music is a good match for Leino’s simple, direct conversational and sometimes confessional style. Leino uses simple rhyme schemes, lost in translation.  There is no “standout” piece among these four songs, though in the third (Rauha – Peace) Saariaho wonderfully evokes the poet’s lines Minä kuulen, kuink’ kukkaset kasavat (I hear how the flowers are growing) and in the repetitive finale, Iltarkous (Evening Prayer), instrumental virtuosity works hand in hand with the flowing vocal line (really, in alternation with it, or as an extended commentary on the poem). 

The clarinet concerto (D’Om Le Vrai Sens), completed less than two years ago, is in six “panels” — each depicting one of the human senses, with the sixth (A mon seul désir) is an homage to the “sixth sense” of extrasensory perception.  Its inspiration is a series of Medieval tapestries in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, called The Lady and the Unicorn.  It is a virtuoso tour de force and something more—this reviewer, hearing the music for the first time and never having heard of Saariaho or any of her music, at once perceived that her craft is all about setting up atmospheres, textures and moods.  One critic dismissed her work, especially her recent work which involves large forces (including two operas), as “outlandish”.  Saariaho herself has a personal credo not too far removed from that of Debussy or Berlioz: “Anything is permissible”, she says, “as long as it’s done in good taste”.  Outlandishness and good taste, of course, are in the eye (and ear) of the beholder. 

The orchestral poem Laterna magica (Magic Lantern), commissioned jointly by the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival for performances in 2008, uses a variety of textures and instrumental sonorities – including the human voice (unintelligible whisperings and breathy sounds) – to dazzle the ear.  One cannot list all the varieties of sound she conjures up—the proof of the pudding is in the eating (in this case, hearing). 

Saariaho went through the labyrinth of Boulezian serialism in Paris (ultimately finding it too restrictive), dabbled in electronic music and came to the point of writing mostly for acoustic instruments.  In the bloom of full maturity at age fifty-nine, Kaija Saariaho emerges as a major composer of our time.  The performances ensnared on this disc are full of commitment and deep understanding. 

This CD can be found online at


WOLFGANG RIHM: Lichtes Spiel: Ein Sommerstück (2009). Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Michael Francis.  KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI: Duo concertante (2010). Mutter; with Roman Patkoló, double bass. RIHM: Dyade (2010-2011). Mutter and Patkoló.  SEBASTIAN CURRIER: Time Machines (2007). Mutter; with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Deutsche Grammophon BOO15877-02.

Rihm's Lichtes Spiel and Currier's Time Machines, featuring violinist Anne-Sophie MutterssWolfgang Rihm’s musical language is more conventional, spurred by the rich, pulsating tone of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s violin.  Lichtes Spiel (Light Game) is freely dissonant and melodic at the same time, and was written with the violinist’s desire to play a new work with instrumentation of “Mozartian” proportions as regards the relationship between soloist and orchestra.  It is almost classical in its design, with some “romantic” inflections.

His more overly atonal Dyade, one of two pieces on this disc for violin and double bass, is like a concerto for violin without the orchestra.  The bass is clearly in a subordinate role, but not an unimportant one.

Penderecki’s brief but unabashedly virtuosic Duo concertante puts Mutter and bassist Roman Patkoló on a more even partnership. It’s almost forgotten now, as the Polish composer has entered old age and is said to be in precarious health these days, but Penderecki was a virtually self-taught violinist in his youth.  The Duo, of which the composer admits he was uncertain in the beginning, has an almost Bartókian intensity.

The most imposing work on the disc, and the longest, is Sebastian Currier’s Time Machines, a mostly non-tonal major concerto in all but name that ends with a pure major third, dying away in a pair of clarinets.  Again, Mutter’s sound is the motivating force, as well as the compelling virtuosity of the New York Philharmonic — a legend that continues to evolve in exciting ways.  Alan Gilbert leads the orchestral forces with intensity, drive and total commitment. 

This CD can be found online at


CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in b minor, op. 58; Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat, op. 61; Ballade No. 4 in f minor, op. 52; Andante spianato in G and Grande Polonaise brillante in E-flat, op. 22. Ingolf Wunder, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 4779634.

Chopin Recital, featuring pianist Ingolf WunderThe 26-year-old German pianist Ingolf Wunder (who is well-named) was the audience favorite, but not the nominal winner, of the fabled Chopin Competition in Warsaw last year.  It was a situation not unlike that of Ivo Pogorelich – conspicuous by his absence on records in recent years — thirty years ago, in which adjudicator Martha Argreich angrily walked out (“I am ashamed to be a member of this jury”) and used her influence to get Pogorelich a contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

In Wunder’s case, there seems to have been no acrimony in Warsaw; and Deutsche Grammophon apparently came directly to him.  This début disc offers the abundant fruit of Wunder’s hard work in preparation for that competition.  Even in the first pages of the third sonata, Wunder’s profound understanding of Chopin as a many-sided creative genius who spoke with many pianistic accents is clear.  He uses minimal pedaling and lets his fingers do ninety per cent of the work; his forceful opening of the first movement and his delectable variety of piano and pianissimo shadings signal that this is an artist worth anyone’s attention.  His sense of structure is as formidable as his command of dynamics and shading.  Everything is in clear focus.  When he needs to use more than the minimal pedal, he does it; the greater part of the genius of any instrumental music is to make the instrument do what it’s theoretically not supposed to do, and Wunder is a thoroughly committed partner in Chopin’s mission to make the piano sound like a sustained-tone instrument.

The same sureness and control are evident in the Scherzo of the b-minor.  The Scherzo leads directly into the slow movement, whose austere and even gruff-sounding introduction leads directly – in turn – to some of the Polish composer’s loveliest cantabile writing.  The finale is a miracle of control of touch, dynamics, shadings and every other pianistic element.  It is virtuosity without affectation in the very best sense.

The other pieces on the disc — and there are no miniatures among them — are handled with similar sureness and keen awareness of style.  The Polonaise-Fantaisie, particularly in its somber introduction, has an almost orchestral sense about it.  The slow dance itself is pure piano, pure Chopin and pure pleasure.  The f-minor Ballade is an even more revelatory excursion into what Wunder is capable of. It is rarefied and poetic playing.  One is almost tempted to say that one would have to go back to Ignaz Friedman’s recordings of nearly eighty years ago for something remotely similar.  It is something uniquely personal and authentic, and yet without undue mannerism.  The quality of improvisation which pervades this music and Wunder’s ironclad sense of structure and pacing are a thrilling marriage.  The same can be said of the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise

Mr. Wunder is shown on the cover of the disc, sitting happily and cross-legged atop the piano.  He says he doesn’t like competitions.  With such an auspicious first outing on records, he won’t have to enter any more of them.  This album will win him countless new friends.