If you have been to any of Kari Kriikku's live performances around the world, you'll know that he is not only brave (he showcases almost exclusively music of living Finnish composers that is often utterly obscure to his audiences); he is also God's own gift to clarinet playing. He's impossibly agile, with a flair for sensuous phrasing, and an inventiveness that keeps even the most astute of listeners forever guessing.
Ondine's recently released Bizarre Bazaar is, without doubt, Kriikuu's own brainchild. This is clear from the CD cover layout before you even press the 'play' button, and confirmed by the liner notes. But it is the music featured that really drives the point home: a collection as random and as unremarkable (most of these pieces would be pretty easy to find on any 'world music' collection) as this can only be held together by something outside itself. These are little folkloristic numbers adapted as concert pieces to show off a uniquely talented soloist. Indeed, this is a collection of little concert pieces Kriikku uses as fillers, or encores as part of his live concert performances (which usually feature highly charged Finnish modernist works).
The selling point is clearly the image of such a phenomenal performer having fun with folklore numbers going from Klezmer to Fado via Egypt and Piazzolla. Kriikku has arranged for his clarinet to soar above a soft bed of strings, dutifully provided by the Tapiola Sinfonietta. This is precisely what happens in the opening track, 'Dances from Korond', a medley of Hungarian folk tunes by composer Laszlo Draskóczy. Kriikku opens on his own, with a lovely cadenza that lands right on the main tune, spun by the string orchestra. At this point exactly, you'll probably cringe and notice that there is an unmistakably 'Hollywood' feel about the whole thing.
This is sorely obvious in the Fado number 'Menino do Bairro Negro', where the cheesy strings hold sway. Nor is this helped in those pieces where, as we move towards Egypt, Kriikku enlists the services of local instruments such as the qanun and oud. If anything, the artificiality is exacerbated. One potential exception would have been the last track 'Feira de Castro', which drops the strings alas, only to take on the pre-recorded sound of what sounds like an outdoors summer party. Perhaps the strings weren't so bad after all.
Of course, it would be hypocritical to ask for the 'real' klezmer experience, and Kriikku makes it perfectly clear in the liner notes that this is no attempt at recovering the authentic feeling of folk music making. Yet Bizarre Bazaar seems to go too far in the other direction: every move, every burst of song or giddy dance has all been sapiently scripted. Perhaps it is the presence of a conductor (Jan Söderblom, who also plays violin in a couple of tracks) that takes away the excitement of giddy ensemble playing in the Egyptian numbers (Longa, Dhikrayat). Which brings me to the point that if this is meant to be a bit of fun, then it should make up in entertainment what it lacks in emotional depth or authenticity. Yet there is no track on this CD — except perhaps the klezmer 'Dance of Joy', which does live up to the title — where you can find the sustained rhythmic drive and sensuality you'd expect of Klezmer and bellydancing Egyptian music, not to mention Argentinian Tango.
There is very little here that can sustain repeated listening. Kriikku's original usage of these pieces (as encores and fillers) was a more inspired one. As a collection, they will tend to tire. If you like klezmer, Egyptian bellydancing, Piazzolla or Fado, you're better off looking somewhere else. And if you love Kriikku, you'd do well to alternate each of these tracks with long stretches of his other work.