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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, November 2009

Kai Nieminen calls himself a ‘painter in music’ and this triptych of works goes a long way to proving the point.

Palomar is his Flute Concerto, written in 2001, and its pellucid impressions suggest a language of subtle hues and colouration. It’s full of flute and harp exchanges but also sports some traditional sounding, grounding horn harmonies. The orchestration is light and subtle, glittering with the concentration of a sextet in places, and revelling in firefly and crepuscular distinction. It’s a two movement work, the finale of which is called La Notte (Night, Old People and Birds)—which is both charming in itself and an indication of his pluralistic inclinations in general. Here we find loquacious voicings, incessant birdsong in which all nature seems soprano-like to be teeming, luscious and avidly vibrating. Then an achingly beautiful and warmly hued string melody courses romantically through the undergrowth, lovely as a Rota song, before the birdsong, though now less agitated resumes. It’s a fine work, impressionistic, less reliant on Messiaen than you may think from my description—and charming.

The Clarinet Concerto was written the following year, 2002. It’s titled Through Shadows I Can Hear Ancient Voices. The writing here is fuller than in the Flute Concerto. Echoing phrases abound as do moments of stasis and, once again—and this is a repeated feature of his writing—rarefied chamber sized clarity. The second movement, The Toilers of the Sea, is in effect an Andante, lyrically spun and irradiated by percussive colour. Lines thin to single voices, before a frantic clarinet outburst erupts, pitch twisting and accompanied by torrid percussion. This is a finely judged work, theatrical but surely shaped, and never off-putting in its vigour.

Finally there is the oldest work, written in 1995: Vicoli in ombra (Alleys in Twilight). A stalking, walking bass motif starts this one and orchestral colours vary from burnished windy strings to more locally vocalised persistent wind writing. There is a real sense of narrative development here, something of which Nieminen is an august exponent. Though the mood darkens somewhat and the work ends quietly it’s not pessimistic.

The performances are terrific. The Flute Concerto was written for Patrick Gallois who both plays and conducts (throughout) Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä. Add to this exemplary sound quality, and you have a contemporary portfolio of approachable colour and incident.

Steven E. Ritter
Fanfare, September 2009

This is wonderfully evocative music, idiomatic and supple, though not quite fitting the “impressionist” label that I was initially considering. Kai Nieminen, guitarist and composer, finds his inspiration often in literary forms, but then chooses not to force the meaning of those forms upon his audience. His music is fantasia-like, but deeper in meaning and more complex than most. The titles serve to provide starting points for the imagination, yet do not intend the music to be followed in a tone-poem manner from reference point to reference point.

He writes very well for his solo instruments, giving them a thorough workout (little rest for the performers in these works) and integrating them with the orchestral textures in a marvelous way. The flute and clarinet concertos are highly sophisticated and unflaggingly interesting, not to mention tuneful and breezily ruminative in nature. While, of course, Debussy haunts the proceedings, I kept thinking of a more sedate version of Ibert as a model. But in many ways, this music transcends either of those folks, and I found every moment quite enjoyable. I need not mention that both Gallois and Raasakka play like the champs they are, and the orchestra is superb.

We get to hear more of the orchestra alone in Alleys in Twilight, a piece that is the first written by the composer for orchestra, and reflects the impressions of a journey through the Trastevere alleys in Rome, winding and branching and leading the traveler to places unforeseen, yet familiar. This piece is airy and full of light, fleeting and delicate, a presage of things to come for this composer.

I cannot imagine anyone who would be less than enthralled by this music.

Patrick Hanudel
American Record Guide, July 2009

The contemporary Finnish composer Kai Nieminen is not a household name in the United States, perhaps because he defies definition. Like his Scandinavian compatriots Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius, he finds inspiration in the raw and inhospitable arctic landscape of his homeland; but like Hector Berlioz he fires his imagination in literary works beyond his native writers. Also like Berlioz, he began his career on the guitar, an instrument outside the conservatory mainstream, which may explain his nontraditional approach to traditional genres.

Nieminen introduces his Flute Concerto and his Clarinet Concerto, both played by the soloists they were written for—the famous French flutist and conductor Patrick Gallois, who serves as music director of the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla, and the Finnish experimental clarinetist Mikko Raasakka, who is principal clarinet of the same ensemble.

The Flute Concerto, titled Palomar: In the Enchanted Garden (2001) was inspired by Nieminen’s fascination with bird song and his acquaintance with the novel Palomar (1983) by the Italian journalist Italo Calvino. In the book the title character goes on a journey to find the meaning of life; and in his concerto, Nieminen casts the flutist as a character who wanders over an impressionist northern landscape, weaving an extended fantasy through thematic transformation.

In the Flute Concerto, the harmonies are consonant, but often static and nonlinear, and the music moves through a steady walking bass or flowing eighth notes in the orchestra. While the ensemble is highly colorful, with a full complement of winds and percussion, Nieminen is always changing the texture to make sure that the soloist is constantly present.

The Clarinet Concerto, called Through Shadows I Can Hear Ancient Voices (2002), also has its roots in an Italian novel, namely Indian Nocturne (1984) by Antonio Tabucchi, a professor at the University of Siena in Tuscany. In the book, Tabucchi blurs the boundaries between the past and the present; and in the same way, Nieminen sets the clarinetist against a colorful orchestra, becoming just another figure in a strange, surreal, and sometimes frightening world.

The harmonies in the Clarinet Concerto are more challenging than those in the Flute Concerto, hinting at modality and light dissonance; but instead of using rhythm to keep the music going, Nieminen relies on quick and unexpected changes in texture and timbre, keeping the listener on the edge of his seat. Unlike the Flute Concerto, the soloist in the Clarinet Concerto has long passages of unaccompanied soliloquies; and the light doses of extended techniques, especially multiphonics and fluttertonguing, enhance the fragmented and disjointed nature of the music.

The last selection, Vicoli in Ombra (Alleys in Twilight, 1995) is Nieminen’s first work for orchestra. Like the Flute Concerto and the Clarinet Concerto, this ten-minute tone poem has its roots in Italy—specifically, the streets of Rome. Here the listener becomes the main character, wandering in the exoticism of a foreign city and meeting a variety of different people. As in the concertos, Nieminen crafts a dream-like musical fabric and employs rhythmic and textural devices to unify the episodic layout of the work. This piece, though, is far more accessible; the harmonies are very romantic, almost like a film score, but the orchestration is thoughtfully and beautifully rendered, similar to a Shostakovich symphony. In addition, there is a human sincerity and profundity in the work that is not present in the concertos.

It is difficult to see the Flute Concerto and the Clarinet Concerto entering the standard repertoire—wind concertos are rarely programmed, and these works are too abstract to find a wide audience. The tone poem, however, could have a real future on American orchestral programs. Moreover, the thoroughly professional performances by Gallois, Raasakka, and the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla will go a long way toward making any composer’s case in an already crowded canon.

Gramophone, July 2009

Concertos are the main event on a new Naxos disc devoted to Kai Nieminen. Patrick Gallois directs the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla very neatly and plays the solo role in the euphonious flute concerto Palomar (2001)…Nieminen’s ingratiation of his audience’s ears never compromises his expressive purpose with some deft orchestration—as in the early Vicoli in ombra (1995)

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Though given titles, the disc’s two major works are flute and clarinet concertos from one of Finland’s most prolific contemporary composers. Kai Nieminen, born in 1953, started life as a guitarist, but later went on to study composition, the two careers having since run in parallel. The present disc could be called ‘classical mood music’, and avoids any specific school of composition, freely moving between tonality and atonality with colours seemingly Nieminen’s major attraction. The opening movement of Palomar, for flute and chamber orchestra, could be the backdrop of a film, iridescent colours flitting through the pictures of Sunset. It is aview of tranquility that contrast with the following Night, Old People and Birds, where the flute pirouettes around a more static accompaniment. A vision of disturbed dreams, in People who sleep badly, opensthe Clarinet Concerto that carries the title Through Shadows I can Hear Ancient Voices. The following movement, The Toilers of the Sea, finds the feeling of unease spilling over from the previous movement, the soloist and orchestra often following different musical languages. There is a cadenza of enormous difficulty shared by percussion instruments, and a subsequent one that links the second and third movements. This finale, Don’t seek and don’t believe, projects thethought that nothing matters. Fast and furious, it requires dexterous fingers from the soloist. Both date from the 21st century, Nieminen’s first short orchestral score from 1995, Vicoli in ombra (Alleys in Twilght), completes the disc.As the soloists are those for which the concertos were composed—Patrick Gallois (flute) and Mikko Raasakka (clarinet)—we must regard the performances as being to the composer’s wishes. The playing of the Sinfonia Finlandia is suitably atmospheric. Excellent sound.

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