KUNIKO - cantus - International Record Review

This follow-up to percussionist Kuniko Kato's acclaimed debut, ‘Kuniko Plays Reich' (Linn CKD 385,) is certainly one of the more unusual entries in Arvo Pärt's impressively vast discography. It features world premiere recordings of Kato's new arrangements of four classic works by Pärt: 'Für Alina', 'Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten', 'Fratres' and 'Speigel im Speigel'. The Japanese-born, US-based percussionist rounds out the disc with Reich's 'New York Counterpoint' and Hywel Davies's 'Purl Ground'.

Situated in the mountains near Nagano, Japan, the acoustic properties of the small church in which 'Für Alina' was recorded are just about perfectly suited to the crystalline purity of the piece. Kato's arrangement for vibraphone and crotales - the former playing the lower ‘tintinnabuli' harmony, the latter playing the upper melodic line - works brilliantly, the constant note-against-note counterpoint ringing out to permeate the entire acoustic space...

...'Fratres' terrific. Arranged for marimba and vibraphone, the work's three motivic elements - the ever-present drone of a fifth, the repeating two-bar percussive motif, the six-bar modal melody - and its overall musical journey from consonance to dissonance and back, is most powerfully conveyed here. Kato articulates the clear formal shape with great care while creating that sense of stasis which is so critical to the works appeal. Similarly, Kato fully captures the circular repetitions and extraordinary stillness of 'Speigel im Speigel'. Originally written for violin and piano, the delicate arpeggiations in the piano part already possessed a palpable bell-like character, making this arrangement for marimba and bells seem entirely apposite. Representing Pärt's typically ingenious use of simple means, a seemingly endless melodic line consisting of phrases of increasing length and range which always return to the initial starting pitch, Kato's version now takes its place among many other fine arrangements of this beguiling piece.

The percussionist gave the world premiere performance of her marimba version of Reich's 'New York Counterpoint' in New York last year. Her recording of the work elicits some of the most exciting playing on the disc and, if the third movement doesn't possess quite the same high energy and jazzy syncopations of Evan Ziporyn on Nonesuch, there's a wonderfully joyous, dancing quality nonetheless.

Kato gave the British premiere of Hywel Davies's 'Purl Ground', composed in 2003, in 2011 at the Cheltenham Music festival. The only piece on the recording originally scored for solo marimba, its 12-chord sequence resembles a choral. Exploring tremolo sounds and the amazing timbral properties of the five-octave marimba, with a dynamic level that never reaches above pianissimo, at times it feels like your hearing an all-enveloping vibration, rather than specific pitches.

Made under the supervision of all three composers, this thoroughly engaging, fastidiously produced recording casts the marimba in an entirely new light. This, together with opening up the repertoire to other percussionists, is quite an achievement.

International Record Review
15 October 2013