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Chateau De L'me
Kaija Saariaho
Sony

Private Gardens/Prisma
Kaija Saariaho
Nave

These simultaneous releases, featuring definitive performances by artists who debuted most of these works, promise further acceptance of the music of fascinating Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Born in 1952, Ms. Saariaho became known in the '80s for her work in electro-acoustics. Her more recent compositions, seven of which are offered on these discs, are characterized by a sometimes dark, frequently haunting air of all-enveloping mystery.

The Sony disc features three works written expressly for the soloists. Singing in French to texts inexplicably omitted, Dawn Upshaw offers the Chteau de L'me cycle of five love songs to ancient Hindu and Egyptian texts; three are drawn from spells for love and healing. Upshaw is fantastic; her characteristic freshness and gorgeous vibrato provide contrast to the otherworldly nature of these songs. The opening "Graal Thtre," written for violinist Gidon Kremer, contains eerie moments of darkness and horror that seem disturbingly appropriate for these times. And "Amers," for cellist Anssi Karttunen and accompaniment, was written with the composer imagining, in her own words, "the cello being a kind of boat moving in different directions in this sea of sound of electronics and ensemble."

Nave, distributed by Harmonia Mundi, offers a two-disc set. The CD contains four gripping electronic works featuring the soprano, cellist and flutist soloists who contributed to their first performances. Thankfully, the vocal work, Lohn, written for Dawn Upshaw, comes complete with translations. Most compelling is the "Six Japanese Gardens" cycle for percussion and electronics, which realistically conveys the composer's "series of impressions," which she experienced while visiting sacred gardens in Kyoto. The bonus Macintosh/PC readable CD-ROM offers a deeper understanding of Saariaho's work via discussions with instrumental soloists and musicologists, an interactive music game composed specially for the disc, and an accessible analysis of the Sony disc's "Amers." It's great music that unites ancient mystery and ritual with a thoroughly modern acoustic landscape.

-- Jason Serinus

Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow
Jonathan Richman
Vapor

PBS's rock 'n' roll documentary recently credited Richman's first band, The Modern Lovers, with sounding "the first stirrings of punk." There's a certain logic to that statement. Caught between two eras of excess, '60s psychedelia and '70s pomp, The Modern Lovers championed sincerity.

But in naming Richman the genre's godfather, PBS also lapsed into hyperbole. Considering how punk has forever honored self-destruction and noise, Richman makes a ridiculous paterfamilias. Her Mystery... is his 19th album in a 30-year career, the 18th devoted to acoustic pop. And Richman's simple lyrics belie his decidedly un-punk craftsmanship. Not even Joey Ramone, punk's pop avatar, could have managed lines like "Because the home of Piaf and Chevalier/ must have done something right to get passion this way" (from "Give Paris One More Chance").

Her Mystery... sounds like the work of a particularly gifted open-mic player. With songs like "I Took a Chance on Her" (I took a chance on her/ because I knew that nothing ventured, nothing gained/ and there was danger there/ but I could tell that this was time to take a chance) and "Couples Must Fight," Richman continues to write smart songs in the cadence and vocabulary of casual talk.

Also like an open-mic player, even Richman's best work cloys after awhile. His sincerity is never clich, never kitschy, but also never ambiguous. After the first listen, Richman's songs offer little more than the opportunity to sing along.

Her Mystery... also includes two short, sweet instrumentals: so short (both less than two minutes long) that they're quickly forgotten and so sweet that they're predictable. But, remarkably, they are perhaps the only time Richman doesn't make sweet and short sound unique; were Joey Ramone around to do so, surely he'd kowtow.

-- Peter Jacoby

Morimur, J.S. Bach
The Hilliard Ensemble, Christoph Poppen on Violin
ECM

This is a gorgeous album. From the cover, it seems simply a curious compilation of various Bach vocal chorales and vocal excerpts interspersed with selections from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin. But when one scratches the surface, one discovers an underlay of mathematics and metaphysics that makes for a truly mystical listening experience.

ECM's liner notes and 80-page booklet reveal that it was common to encode riddles and hidden messages in baroque music by means of numbers. According to Professor Helga Thoene of the University of Dsseldorf, no less than a veritable theology in numbers and notes was hidden in the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In 1994, Prof. Thoene published an article claiming that the famous chaconne from Bach's Partita in D minor for solo violin was meant as an "epitaph in music" for Maria Barbara Bach. After violinist Christoph Poppen read Thoene's article, he proposed to ECM producer Manfred Eicher that he collaborate with the famed Hilliard Ensemble to make the "hidden chorales" of the chaconne audible. The result is the present recording, which uses one voice to a part (soprano, countertenor, tenor and baritone) to link together the five movements of the Partita. The recording climaxes with a unique 14-minute version of the Chaconne for violin and voices, in which the augmented Hilliard Ensemble sings verses in parallel with Poppen's solo violin.

Beyond Professor Thoene's research, this deeply spiritual music, enhanced by exceptional musicianship and ECM's usual highly atmospheric sonics, is so beautiful that one "gets" Bach's extra levels of meaning even without reading the liner notes. Turn off the lights and listen. This is a wonderful album.

-- Jason Serinus

  • Reviews of new work from Kaija Saariaho, Jonathan Richman and violinist Christoph Poppen

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