L-R: pianist Mina Gajic, cellist Coleman Itzkoff, and violinist YuEun Kim. (credit: Cary Joberet)

“Sonic Alchemy” CD invokes musical “timelessness,” pairing classical and contemporary compositions

Sonic Alchemy
YuEun Kim, violin; Coleman Itzkoff, cello; Mina Gajic, piano.
Pēteris VASKS: Balta Ainava
Arvo PÄRT: Fratres
W. A. MOZART: Fantasia in D minor, K. 397
Arvo PÄRT: Mozart-Adagio (after Sonata K. 280)
W. A. MOZART: Fantasia in C minor, K. 475
Pēteris VASKS: Castillo Interior
Arvo PÄRT: Spiegel im Spiegel
Sono Luminus DSL-92261
Release Date: October 13, 2023
Format: CD & digital
Duration: 68:27

Giorgio Koukl | 5 OCT 2023

A CD dedicated to time? What a nice thought. As the booklet writer for this Sonic Alchemy album, Pàll Ragnar Pàlsson, explains, the main idea about gathering music from Mozart and two Baltic states composers in the seven tracks of this Sono Luminus production is time, or better said: a certain absence of time, where music becomes timeless.

It is undoubtedly an excellent idea, but the result is unfortunately only partially fulfilled.

DSL-92261 cover art

DSL-92261 cover art

The violin, cello, and piano trio, composed of musicians YuEun Kim, Mina Gajić, and Coleman Itzkoff, tried very hard to convey this idea in a particular sound, aesthetically quite different from a “classical” piano trio. Their main goal seems to be to deliver a cool, distant, and emotionless sound with no vibrato or agogical liberty. In this sense, they are successful. The other question is whether this serves the music well. In certain examples, like in the often-recorded Arvo Pärt piece, Fratres, it is a clear yes. In other scores, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s two piano fantasies (K.397 and K.475), definitely no. For the latter compositions, there are far too many better recordings to compare, and the emotionless piano play of Ms. Gajić is simply not good enough.

The CD opens with a Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks (b. 1946). Mr. Vasks emerged thanks to some concerts of his music proposed by Gideon Kremer in the 1990s and is since then well known and often performed in the Scandinavian countries. He is just another example of an oppressed composer from the former Soviet Union territory who managed to get better known after his country became independent.

His work Balta Ainava (“White Scenery”) is part of a larger piano music suite called The Seasons.

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As the excellent liner notes explain, this music is written “senza misura,” with no definite beat or rhythm, with only instruction for the performer to play “very sweetly and softly.” Here, Ms. Gajić delivers a fine example where playing this minimalist music without any emotion and seemingly without dynamics is definitely a winning solution. It is unquestionably a good opener for an album of “timeless” music. It is also clearly not a choice for people who wish some sort of development in the eight-minute-long score, as there is none.

One of the most widely-played pieces of Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) follows. Fratres was written in 1977 and elaborated since then in not less than nineteen different versions by the composer alone, without counting the versions for dozens of films featuring this music. It uses the well-known “tintinnabuli” style created by the Estonian composer.

The trio plays the version on this disc very well. Especially noteworthy is the elegant sound of the violoncello. All musicians are greatly sustained by the superior sound obtained with the help of the Dolby Athmos technology.

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The next three tracks were either written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or are some elaboration of his music.

As previously said, proposing such known pieces as the two Piano Fantasias in D and C minor is daring. Here Ms. Gajić has to be measured against the best pianists of today and of the past, and her rendering simply doesn’t sound very convincing.

A special mention must be made of Arvo Pärt’s elaboration of an “Adagio” from the Piano Sonata, K.280 by Mozart. Here, the Pärt tries to transform it into a piece for a piano trio. This music was written originally for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson trio in 1992 and was intended to be a piece in memory of Oleg Kagan. It consists mainly in passing the melody between the strings and the piano with some dissonant notes. It has been widely played and recorded since its first presentation at the Helsinki Festival.

The Kim-Gajić-Itzkoff trio again offers us a version where no emotions are allowed; seemingly cold but rather effective, quite different from the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson trio, which plays it with a nearly Romantic, exuberant sound.

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The sixth track leads us back to the work of Peteris Vasks with a piece called Castillo Interior (“Interior Castle”). At 13 minutes duration, this is the longest work of this disc. It consists mainly of two sections, one slow and melancholic, one built over some repetitive chords played fortissimo. These two parts simply repeat quasi “ad infinitum” with a more than questionable result of being plainly too long.

The last track is devoted to another well-known piece by Pärt called Spiegel im Spiegel (“Mirror in Mirror”). Written in 1978 as the composer’s final piece before departing from Estonia, it is dedicated to the Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov.

This is a good showcase for the violinist YuEun Kim. She displays a well-balanced sound, absolutely sure intonation, and a fine command of the limited bowing technique requested by this work.

While this is certainly not a disc for everybody, reuniting such diversity of compositional sources under the optics of “timelessness” is an intriguing idea worth our attention. 


About the author:
Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently recorded a first volume of the complete solo and duo piano works of the Italian-American composer Vittorio Rieti, released in March 2023 on the Grand Piano label. (photo: Chiara Solari)