Crossings - Kari Vuola / Varpu Haavisto
Alba Records ABCD 401
Classical - Chamber
Nuorvala, Juhani (b. 1961): Solo per viola da gamba
Messiaen, Olivier (1908-1992): L'Ascension
Kortekangas, Olli (b. 1955): Offertorium, Crossing the Five Rivers
Kari Vuola (organ)
Varpu Haavisto (viola da gamba)
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Review by John Miller - December 29, 2016
'Crossings' - an appropriate title for a new SACD from Finnish Alba. It features a viola da gamba played by Varpu Haavisto and a large church organ played by Kari Vuola, both highly regarded in their professions. It is a fascinating and unusual programme. It features two solos from the organ, a duo between gamba and organ and a gamba solo.
This raises a number of questions. The viola da gamba first appeared in Europe in the late 15th century and subsequently became one of the most popular Renaissance and Baroque instruments, mostly in consorts or ensembles. As the popularity of the violin family grew throughout the 17th century, the viol could no longer compete. Violins, Violas and Cellos had a larger sound in large concert halls. But now the reconstruction of historical performances has brought back the gamba. Of course, Varpu Haavisto takes part in authentic performances, but she also plays solos written by living composers. Can the viola da gamba respond effectively to the demands of modern music? And does a duo of organ and gamba make worthwhile music? The answers are on this release, recorded in the Central Pori Church, Western Finland.
Finnish composer Juhani Nuorvala (b.1961) writes about his 'Solo per Viola da Gamba' (2008) in the SACD booklet. He outlines the differences between the gamba compared with the violincello, the most obvious being its 6 strings rather the 5 used in the Violin family. This means that the gamba's tuning is different to that of violins, particularly because it was invented and refined in a much earlier time than that of the violin. Nuorvala uses an intonation called 'just' intonation, based on pure intervals of the overtone series.
Specifically, his solo composition's tuning was basically 'just' with pure fourths and a pure third, and Nuorvala also uses the abilities of the Gamba's frets, some of which are removable and others which are additional, thus facilitating pitches based on the 7th and even the 11th harmonic on the fingerboard. Nuorvala tells us that these arrangements of tuning provide beautifully resonant harmonies and expressive intervals, "such as quarter-tones and no fewer than than five sizes of thirds, each with a distinct sonic and emotional effect". Even those listeners without knowledge of instrumental details will indeed hear a gorgeous range of sound, bowed or plucked, from Varpu Haavisto's instrument, captured in superb detail by meticulous SACD engineer Mika Koivusalo, so that one can hear the luscious internal resonances of the gamba.
Haavisto's solo performance does fine justice to her gamba and to Nuorvala's piece, in which there are a number of musical personalities. The composer uses a number of modernistic textures, most commonly minimalism. At the beginning, the monologue is meditative, with richly dark multi-string chords and pizzicati; a more active and faster midsection brings tension, which returns to tranquility and beauty, where some high harmonic rhythms suggest an Eastern influence.
The next solo on the disc passes to Kari Vuola on the magnificent Pori organ. Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is one of the best known of the C20th composers, and certainly stands alone in the history of music with his constant worship of the Catholic faith. His music was inspired by his synaesthesia, which gave him the ability to transcribe sounds into colours in his inner imagination, and he went to great length in describing these colours in his scores where appropriate. He was preceded by the synaesthesic Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915).
Messiaen's L'Ascension (1932-1933) is the most famous of his early (pre-Turangalîla-symphonie) orchestral scores. It has four meditations from The Gospel according to St John on Christ's Ascension. Messiaen had in 1931 been appointed organist at L'Église de la Trinité. By 1935 an organ version of L'Ascension had been finished, somewhat a revision, since the third movement of the organ version is a completely different piece of music than that of the orchestral version. The new organ (2007) in Central Pori Church was designed as an organ of the highest artistic integrity based on the French Romantic tradition. Kari Vuola, the organist of Pori Church, gives a powerful performance which makes the most of these French organ designs, particularly in the new toccata-like final for the organ - 'Meditation', ecstatic with its huge, virtuosic changes in dynamics.
On Track 6 Haavisto has another solo for the gamba, this time written by Olli Kortekangas (b.1955), and commissioned for a festival in Lapland. 'Offertorium' (2012) proclaims the message of Easter with alternating melodic and rhythmic motifs in many moods. Based on an old Easter hymn, this joyful tune emerges fully near the end, with colourful rhythmic joy. This is a World Première recording.
Kortekangas supplies a marvellously appropriate end for this artful SACD; for the disc has the sub-title of 'Hommage à Olivier Messiaen'. The intriguing main title is 'Crossing the Five Rivers (2008), for organ and gamba', where each instrumental character appears in both solos and duos. The bones of this work are the characters of the five rivers of Hades in Greek mythology and their crossings (Sorrow, Lamentation, Fire, Hate, Oblivion). This also is a World Première recording (despite the dark red stars on an even darker red background on the back of the jewel case).
Early in my review, I asked two questions. Can the viola da gamba respond effectively to the demands of modern music? Yes, very much so, at least as the solo played here. Does a duo of organ and gamba make worthwhile music? Indeed; Kortekangas rose to the challenge, despite its many aspects of "dark" music.
There are a number of subtle aspects in the sound, such as a seeming large difference in position of organ and gamba at times in 'Crossing the Five Rivers'. This effect has been engineered by Koivusalo, whose contribution to this 5.0 recording is marvellous at using the setting of responsive ambience of the church to enhance the clarity and presence of both widely different instruments. The halo of ambience around the sonically detailed strings and resonant body of the gamba are all presented, as is the 3D focus of depth of arranged ranks behind the organ façade, especially the 32' pipes which are right at the back of the organ loft.
If you are at all interested in organs or gambas, buy this SACD to hear how they sound together and experience fine musicianship and some interesting modern music. Alba also provides valuable information from each of the composers (except Messiaen, of course!) in English and Finnish, together with texts which were inspirations for the music. There are also B/W photographs of sessions and the organ in situ.
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