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Jaakko KUUSISTO (b. 1974)
Play III for string quartet, Op. 21 (2008) [10:44]
Valo ('Light') for violin and piano, Op. 23 (2009) [12:09]
Play II for violin, viola, cello and piano, Op. 16 (2005-06) [13:45]
Loisto ('Glow') for violin and piano, Op. 12 (2000) [5:06]
Jurmo for piano solo, Op. 31 (2013) [11:25]
Meta4 (Play III)
Jaakko Kuusisto (violin: Valo, Play II, Loisto), Paavali Jumppanen (piano: Valo, Jurmo), Riitta-Liisa Ristiluoma (viola: Play II), Jan-Erik Gustafsson (cello: Play II), Heini Kärkkäinen (piano: Play II)
rec. February 2015, Järvenpää Hall, Finland
BIS BIS-2192 SACD [54:18]

Evidence of Finnish composer Jaakko Kuusisto’s versatility can be found on the BIS label with releases including a fine Violin Concerto in which he appears as conductor (review), and here in which he is heard as violinist. The content of the concerto disc was summed up by Dave Billinge as appealing “to those who fear the atonal extremes of modern music”, and the same might also be said of Glow, although these works are by no means superficial or undemandingly facile – this isn’t ‘lean back and relax’ music, but it has plenty of substance and rewardingly expressive eloquence.

Play III for string quartet “unfolds as a series of dramatic surprises”, with hints of Shostakovich in its intensity, and with moments of Weinberg’s Jewish soulfulness. The contrasts between sustained but tensile repose and those urgent ‘surprises’ are sharp and extreme, but follow a quirky pictorial logic that might be traced back to someone like Janáček. These composer references are more a quality-control aspect of describing what is going on here than a catalogue of influences. Kuusisto’s invention is by no means derivative, though a concern with string quartet tradition in the last century results in inevitable points of connection.

The whole-tone opening of Valo for violin and piano is one which will be synonymous for many with starlight and Impressionist imagery and colour-painting in music. The piano certainly has some Debussy-like depths, over which the violin rises with extended and expressive melodic lines. This material crystalizes into rhythmic sections in which the violin and piano imitate and answer each other into an ostinato that works its way up to a climax, the elements of impressionism and momentum finally joining in a reflective close.

Play II for string trio and piano opens with “a fanatical gallop” with cinematic impact, aspects of the entire work being heard by Paavli Jumppanen in his booklet notes as having “hints at the aesthetics of film music.” Dramatic gestures, spooky interludes and picturesque effects all contribute to the feel of a work with a hidden narrative programme, though there is no suggestion that this is the case from the composer. I could imagine a very effective animation film being set to such a work, with a final scene of extreme peril and ultimate heroism.

Loisto for violin and piano is the earliest work here by a few years, but sits well in the penultimate spot in the programme. It shares its explosive contrasts with other works here, but plays more on quasi-direct but nevertheless elusive references to stylistic moments in a wealth of genres, from salon schmaltz to a moment I’m sure takes its cue from a Hitchcock film or ‘The Twilight Zone’.

The finale is the most recent work in the programme, Jurmo for piano solo. This was inspired by a visit to the island of Jurmo, which can be found off the south west coast of Finland. Kuusisto’s impressionistic powers of observation are in full flow here, with syncopated semi-minimalistic or even jazzy rhythms and harmonies at the heart of a piece which evokes surging waters and the drama of a rocky shoreline and vast skies above.

Superbly recorded, and with the composer and his close associates very much the driving force behind excellent performances, this is a very appealing disc of some very fine contemporary music. To come full circle, this is the sort of thing that one can only hope will help rehabilitate modern music into more mainstream acceptance.

Dominy Clements



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