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Nikolaj Sajko & Miha Haas “Grieg, Savin, Martinu, Pucihar”

Over the years, listeners have become accustomed to the idea that genres like Blues and Jazz are strongly rooted in a conversational approach to music.  That the band members are speaking to each other without using words, or in the case of the Blues, mixing vocals and instruments, and that the audience is also taking part in this two-way conversation between artist and the listener.  While these two genres have firmly solidified this concept is listener’s minds and in their expectations, Classical music is also full of great works that bring this approach to light, especially when two artists are performing in a duo situation such as cellist Nikolaj Sajko and pianist Miha Haas on their album Grieg, Savin, Martinu, Pucihar.  The result is a record that showcases why bringing a strong level of conversation and musical communication to any performance will immediately speak to a listener, drawing them in and making them a part of the performance, rather than a passive bystander.

The album begins with a moving rendition of Edvard Grieg’s "Sonata in a minor, Op. 36 for Piano and Violoncello." Both musicians are at the top of their game during this piece, as they not only perform with impeccable precision and technical facility, but with an emotional quality that draws the listener into the piece, holding one’s attention through the slow moments, the intense climax and the dramatic finale.  While the technical facility of each performer is to be admired, it is not necessarily what makes this piece standout on the record.  It is the musical interaction that makes it such a special experience, one that is not easily forgotten after the album comes to a close.  It is a joy to listen to the cello weave its way in and out of the piano accompaniment with an ease and familiarity that leaves the impression that both instruments were played by the same person.  This level of communication and interaction is a key quality in the success of any duo album, regardless of genre, and it is one of the main reasons that this record leaves such a lasting impression on the listener.

There are also works by lesser-known composers such as Bohuslav Martinu’s "Variations on a Theme of Rossini for Violoncello and Piano." While this piece and composer may not be as familiar as Grieg and his work, it is worthy of inclusion alongside the other works on this album.  There is a high level of intensity and engagement during the piece, though it never goes over the top in its attempt to build energy and musical intrigue.  Dynamically, it is a study in how one uses subtlety to create intensity, instead of blasting the audience out of their chairs to achieve the same effect.  Each wave of crescendo and decrescendo furthers the intensity of the piece, providing layer upon layer of interest and excitement from start to finish.  This may be a new work to many listeners, but upon experiencing the duo perform it with such mastery, it is apparent why it was included on the album alongside the more familiar names and pieces. As well, the album contains two works by Slovene composers, a Romantic Sonata by Risto Savin and a more contemporary piece by Blaz Pucihar.  Though these piece may not be as well know to listeners who are not familiar with Slovene composers, they are performed and interpreted with the same skill and high level of musicianship as the rest of the pieces.  They are also a testament to the compositional mastery of these two composers, who are sometimes overshadowed by their contemporaries in Western European countries.
Recording a duo album is never an easy task in any genre, but Sajko and Hass make it sound easy.  Their high level of musicianship, intimate knowledge of the pieces at hand and strong musical communication skills all combine to makes it an enjoyable album in all regards.  As well, by including both known and lesser-known composers on the record, the duo is also providing a level of variety to the album that can be enjoyed by listeners of all backgrounds and musical tastes.

Rating:  5 stars (out of 5)

Dr. Matthew Warnock

Nikolaj Sajko Nikolaj Sajko

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