Saariaho
Amers
Chateau de l’Ame
Graal Theatre
Anssi Karttunen (cello)
Avanti! Chamber Orchestra

Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
Members of the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir
Members of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Gidon Kremer (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL SK 60817
Duration: 72 minutes
Reviewed: October 2001
Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg are the twin peaks of the generation of Finnish composers born in the 1950s whose early maturity coincided with the advent of computer-driven electronics both as a tool for compositional thought and as a sound-source with limitless possibilities. Whereas Lindberg has primarily used digital technology as a blueprint to shape compositions for conventional instruments, Saariaho has been more concerned to explore the timbre and gestural resources afforded by live sound manipulation.
It is therefore no surprise that, through working at IRCAM and settling in Paris, she should have been attracted to the ’spectral’ school of French composers such as Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey, whose work seeks to investigate the basic building-blocks of sound and to create long-range harmonic structures out of the DNA of a single tone. What this important and very beautiful CD demonstrates is that the influence of Saariaho’s French domicile has in recent years gone far beyond this in some highly unexpected directions.
The three works presented date from the mid-90s; each is for orchestra with soloist - violin in Graal Theatre, soprano with female chorus in Chateau de l’Ame, and cello in Amers. Only the last of these uses electronics as such, but the writing in all three pieces would be inconceivable without the experience of electro-acoustic sound management behind it.
This can be heard at the very outset of Graal Theatre, a cadenza which immediately establishes the vast array of playing techniques employed by the soloist, from folk-inflected fiddling to trills alternating real notes with harmonics, and notes which shade into white-noise by increase of bow pressure. The work’s title makes reference to Arthurian legend; there is an audible sense throughout the 28-minute piece of a timeless, ritualised world and a telling of mythological stories by the soloist to a rapt orchestra that listens silently then comments and occasionally interrupts. The idea of archetypal legends being endlessly retold in different ways is heightened by the use of static harmonic fields, often created by ostinato patterns, causing an illusion of surface movement when the music is in fact not travelling at all. The orchestral soundworld is crystalline, silvery and evanescent. It occupies primarily the stratosphere (Saariaho talks of vertigo in the booklet notes) and the subterranean – a characteristic signal being a high solo trumpet over a low pedal point – with very little in the middle, leaving the violinist free to range far and wide across its entire compass.
The second of the work’s two movements rhymes with the first in opening with a solo cadenza and progresses in a similar manner of quiet rumination alternating with passages of fierce rhetoric; this time the orchestra wells up to a climactic outburst, as if denying the meaning of the violin’s myth, leaving the soloist to retreat and disappear into a world of otherworldly scrapings and whisperings.
The artists Graal Theatre was created for made this recording around the time of its 1996 Proms premiere. No praise could be too high for the performance of Gidon Kremer. His identification with the music goes beyond virtuosity, even beyond artistry, in the way in which his playing seems to become the very essence of his instrument. One has the palpable impression of being ’spoken to’ through non-verbal means. The orchestral colourings are beautifully articulated by the BBCSO under Salonen, who understands this music better than any other conductor. The recorded sound is somewhat glassy but it sits rather well with this particular music.
The slightly earlier Amers, for cello and ensemble with electronics, is more concerned with pure tone in the manner of Saariaho’s music of the 1980s. The marine imagery of the title is borne out by music in which the cello seems to be plunged into the liquid medium of the ensemble, whereby the soloist’s gestures create textural disturbances, sending out rippling wave patterns in the other instruments and causing splashes of electro-acoustic resonance. The cello writing is comparable to the violin part in Graal Theatre in its range of techniques but has a more febrile quality, which is delivered with fearsome virtuosity by Anssi Karttunen. The warmer recorded sound quality is a bonus.
The song cycle, Chateau de l’Ame, sets ancient Hindu and Egyptian texts on the theme of love and is evidently a preparation for Saariaho’s first opera, L’Amour de Loin, premiered very successfully in Salzburg. The work represents a stylistic breakthrough toward a more melodic and emotionally direct content, which should find Saariaho new admirers amongst audiences who may find her earlier works hard to grasp in their apparent lack of forward movement.
The soprano’s opening entry in the first of the five songs, ’La liane’, is something of a shock in its rapturous sweep, whose lineage is unmistakable – Ravel’s ’mysterious East’ in such works as Sheherazade and Chansons madecasses. The arching vocal line is anchored by a low regular pulse in the orchestra and supported by a harmonic backdrop provided by a female semi-chorus. The prevalent mood of warm solace with troubled undercurrents is continued in the ensuing songs. The second, ’A la terre’, is a most affecting and tender lullaby. A more anguished tone asserts itself in the next two, culminating in the terrifying orchestral crescendo that ends the fourth, ’Pour repousser l’esprit’. The extended final setting, ’Les formules’, distils the work’s essence in a quiet dialogue between the soprano and a speaking chorus. It’s a powerful work that should be widely heard, especially in a performance as beautifully phrased and deeply committed as Dawn Upshaw’s, for whose natural and open vocal qualities Saariaho’s writing is tailor-made. Salonen sympathetically controls the orchestral and choral contributions.
We are already in Salonen’s debt for an earlier disc of Saariaho’s orchestral music (ONDINE ODE 804-2) and the present disc is even more welcome. Judging by the production values of the CD packaging, Sony evidently has high hopes for this issue, which are entirely justified by this magnificent release.

 

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