Maria Kalaniemi, Bellow Poetry (Alula, 2006)

Anybody who sees Maria Kalaniemi play the accordion for the first time discovers very quickly that she is a true master at her craft. Not only is she technically flawless, but she pulls a broad range of emotions, from the delicate to the very tense, out of her instrument and makes it seem so effortless and natural on stage. Like many players who are exceptionally good at their instrument, though, Kalaniemi hasn't always produced recordings that equal the experience of seeing her live. That simple fact makes latest CD, Bellow Poetry, a particularly ambitious undertaking. For this album, Kalaniemi does away with virtually all accompaniment, save an occasional contribution from her husband Olli Varis on guitar and her own vocals on a couple of tracks. Her own playing is sparse and pensive, punctuated by extended moments of eerie silence and abrupt shifts in dynamics and tempo.

Bellow Poetry
is as challenging to the listener as it must have been for its creator. For one thing it requires undivided attention, which is a hard thing to give in our fast-paced world. Furthermore, it is intended to be listened to as a whole, and not track by track; anybody going in looking for one or two tunes to stick on their iPod has exactly the wrong idea. When I saw Kalaniemi perform these pieces at the Nordic Roots Festival, it was easy to focus on her, and to appreciate the moods and feelings she was creating with her instrument and voice. The recording requires exactly the same kind of focus, and a casual listener will lose much of the subtlety. For example, it took me several listens to the piece "Sade (Rain)" before I even noticed that it was actually raining in the background. So if you wish to get this album, you had better be prepared to tune everything else out for fifty minutes. If you can do that, though, you'll be rewarded with some superb, emotive playing in an intimate, artistic setting.

Overall grade: B+

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