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SAARIAHO: Du cristal

. . . a la fumee. Nymphea

Kronos Quartet, Alanko,

Karttunen, Los Angeles

Philharmonic / Salonen

(Ondine ODE 804-2)

OCEANIC is the only word for Du cristal. Chiming bells glint from a panoramic wash of sound; piccolos intensify the play of light; deep resurgent groundswells are at once unfathomable. Physically, spiritually, we are light years away from Kaija Saariaho's native Finland.

Hers is an intensely visual music - reflections, refractions, shifting surfaces, fantastic dissolves. But there's also a beautifully imagined sensory journey going on: therapeutic, but not in any 'New Age' sense; there is direction and energy. More so as we cross the imaginary bridge into . . . a la fumee, part two of the same work - harder-edged, kinetic, volatile, with alarming electronic magnifications of its solo flute and cello protagonists. The effect is of Du cristal under the microscope.

The intrepid Kronos Quartet certainly comes under the microscope in Nymphea: the scrape and grate of bow on string, the good and bad vibrations within the soundbox before and after it becomes music as we know and recognise it. It's the string quartet mutant of Stephen King's imagination: pure tones are tantalisingly elusive, the breathy incantation of poetry further removes us from reality. Saariaho is a rich imagination for the computer age; but I'm happier when she's enhancing and not vandalising. Du cristal is beautiful. ES

'NEW Kronos Quartet release' - well, the Kronos lends its kudos to only one 18-minute piece, Nymphea. The rest of the work is done by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic - very impressively too. And the central figure on this disc is surely Kaija Saariaho herself - emerging as one of the most inventive and unselfconsciously original composers on the current Nordic scene.

Like the rather more energetically hyped Magnus Lindberg, Saariaho remains in some respects an unrepentant modernist, but the contrast between any of these three works and a piece of noisy braggadocio like Lindberg's Kraft (staged in the Festival Hall last month) is extreme. Saariaho thinks naturally in long lines, no matter how dreamlike the journey may seem, but she also has a fine ear for detail.

What may seem at first a Jackson Pollock-like splurge of sound turns out to be full of delicately worked ideas - the fantasy is active on many levels at once. Those who respond to the teeming, multi-layered vitality of James Dillon should find this just as involving, though the sonorities, moods and musical images are very different. The edges can be hard, even serrated, but more often the surprise is in how beautiful the writing can be - intense non-tonal harmonies, twilight colours - especially in Nymphea. The diptych Du cristal . . . a la fumee is starker, but again there's a compelling, if elusive, logic to it, and the two-panel structure works surprisingly well. Again there's magic in some of the sounds - the things you can do with an alto flute] SJ

GRIEG: Holberg Suite. Two

Elegiac Melodies. Two Nordic

Melodies. Two Melodies. Two

Lyric Pieces

Gothenburg Symphony

Orchestra / Neeme Jarvi

(DG 437 520-2)

THE Grieg we know and love to death - except that these performances are very much alive. Jarvi puts the dancing back into the Holberg Suite. It's a while since I could visualise footwork for the Sarabande, and a brisker tempo makes all the difference. Then there's the opulence of the Air, ornamentation richly carved out in appreciation. Nothing retiring about this playing: it's not that refinement is wanting (note the throwaway pizzicatos of the Gavotte), just that the overriding impression is of open air and a ruddy complexion. It's robust playing, outgoing, wholehearted.

And it's good to be reminded of just how resourcefully Grieg slipped from songbook and piano album to string orchestra. In The Last Spring, mother of all Grieg melodies, 'elegiac' or otherwise, the second verse loses little or nothing of the song's intensity as one divisi group after another is added to the texture. It's similar with the first of the Nordic Melodies, which begins life unadorned and unharmonised and is variously embellished as if to celebrate the belief that all folk music, real or imagined, is enriched in the performing of it. Here, it is. Accept no exhumations. ES

THE Grieg anniversary seems to have come round just when the musical world was ready to rediscover his skilful mood- painting and apparently effortless tunefulness. Perhaps, too, we're more sympathetic to miniaturists. Some of the short pieces in this collection are gems. Yes, they can be sentimental, but whether that sentimentality comes across as cloying, earthy or in some deeper sense innocent depends very much on the performances. Neeme Jarvi is never over-generous with the saccharine, and a lot of this disc is delightful. There are times, though, when I think he underplays the music's vitality. A lot of the Holberg Suite seems to dance on tiptoe, and the dance sections in the Two Nordic Melodies can be more energetic - more from the soil. Against that there's some wonderfully singing phrasing and warm string tone - lovely recordings, too. SJ