The conductor Teodor Currentzis has cultivated a mystique as an eccentric firebrand out to reinvent the classical music canon. He has based himself in Perm, Siberia, outside of the mainstream, to give himself the time and freedom to work as he chooses with the local opera house and the orchestra he founded, MusicAeterna. The Western mainstream, though, has been getting increasing exposure to his idiosyncratic, impassioned interpretations, in part through the efforts of Sony Classical. I found the start of his Mozart cycle to be promising but not as innovative as its billing, in part because the singers, however encouraged to innovate, don’t sound all that different from the singers on other recordings.
Then Currentzis’s new recording of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with Patricia Kopatchinskaja, coupled with Stravinsky’s “Les Noces,” landed on my desk, and I put it on out of curiosity. Through some fluke, the disk skipped to the third movement of the concerto, and within a couple of minutes I literally felt a physical jolt in my body, a shot of adrenaline that left me on the verge of tears, or standing up and shouting. With its tempo changes, its exaggerated pauses, its dynamic extremes, this is a recording that some people may well hate. But its passion and ferocity and commitment are such that I trust a lot of people will respond as viscerally as I did — and understand what all the Currentzis excitement is about.
It’s not just Currentzis, of course; it’s the pairing of conductor and soloist (underlined in a rather cloying exchange of personal letters that forms the album’s liner notes). Kopatchinskaja is willing to go well outside the box of what’s usually considered acceptable in classical music for the sake of a kind of vital expression that embraces squeaks and rosin-y grinding of bow on strings before flowering in a pure flight of crystalline sound, rendered all the more luminous by the comparison. This recording shows the payoff for risk-taking: By digging deeper, you can say more.
“Les Noces” is in every way a worthy partner, sung by a chorus of native Russian speakers who, like Kopatchinskaja, find the rawness and ferocity within the music, just as Currentzis and the orchestra extend from harshness to tenderness to fortissimos that pound the ear with explosive impact. This is one of the most startling and refreshing recordings I’ve heard. Don’t miss it.
Kaija Saariaho searches exhaustively for new sounds in her music. The Finnish composer has used computers and electronic sounds and processes, but she has also worked with specific performers to explore the boundaries of the sounds traditional instruments can make. Saariaho’s partner in the creation of many of her new pieces for flute, including for her outstanding flute concerto “L’aile du songe” from 2001, has been the flutist Camilla Hoitenga. Born in Michigan but based part of the year in Germany, Hoitenga met Saariaho in 1982, at the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, and they have collaborated ever since. Now, Hoitenga has released an anthology of Saariaho’s flute work.
Other composers have explored this terrain before, but Saariaho makes these experimental effects part of an overall color scheme. She uses different kinds of flutes in these pieces; the performer has to speak words or make other unconventional noises through the instrument, like clicking the keypads; there are overtones and other effects. One example of this “conventional” experimental piece is “Couleurs du vent” for alto flute, a streamlined version of Saariaho’s earlier double concerto for alto flute and cello, where overblowing and whispering effects far outweigh traditional sounds. The piccolo gets a similar turn in “Dolce tormento,” as does the bass flute in “Sombre,” composed for Houston’s Da Camera Society in 2012, an eerie work for the space of the Rothko Chapel, where Mark Rothko’s black-on-black paintings are displayed.
Some pieces are arrangements of works for other forces, made at Hoitenga’s request, such as “Tocar,” originally for violin and piano, made here into a striking version for flute and harp. As performed with harpist Bridget Kibbey, it is a reminder that Saariaho is not only seeking strange effects: The piece is driven by a keen melodic sense and sounds in some ways far more traditional, and not at all derivative of any other composer’s work.
In “Mirrors,” the flutist speaks words from Yvonne Caroutch’s “Le livre de la licorne,” with flutter-tongue and glissando effects in both flute and cello. This piece is an example of Saariaho’s pioneering work with computers: It was originally a CD-ROM composition, with sections that could be combined in different ways by live performers, performed here in three different versions. The range of music, all in excellent performances, is a tribute to the sonic imagination of its composer.