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Kaija SAARIAHO (b. 1952)
True Fire for baritone and orchestra (2014) [27:14]
Ciel d’hiver for orchestra (2013) [9:43]
Trans for harp and orchestra (2015) [23:13]
Gerald Finley (baritone)
Xavier de Maistre (harp)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. 2017, Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
ONDINE ODE1309-2 [60:37]

Here is an opportunity to enjoy three examples of the genres typical of the music of the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. It is the second disc of her music which I have had the privilege of reviewing recently (review). Saariaho has a high profile, I feel deservedly – as this disc clearly shows.

Trans is a three-movement concerto for harp and a small orchestra. The title seems to come from the way the composer has orchestrated or worked out her material, as ideas first heard on the harp are taken up by the orchestra and reworked, and often vice-versa. This is noticeable in the almost impressionistic first movement, and in the third movement by an obsessive two-note figure, which moves around the soundscape of the ensemble. Perhaps the first two movements are not contrasted enough but the finale – the longest of the three – is rhythmic and vital. The atmosphere is icy but not lacking in warm-heartedness and allure. It may also be significant that the movements are provocatively titled in French ‘Fugitif’, ‘Vanité’ and ‘Messager’. I write as one who has also composed for the harp: It is clear that the harp writing, although not obviously virtuoso, needs someone of the highest calibre. Xavier de Maistre negotiates Saariaho’s astral sounds with, it seems, consummate ease.

I write ‘astral’ deliberately, shadowing Kimmo Korhonen’s useful booklet essay: “Ciel d’hiver… (joins a) series of works by Saariaho that were in one way or another inspired by things in sky and space.” He lists Solar of 1993 and Asteroid 4179 of 2005, to name but two. Ciel d’hiver is a transcription of the middle movement of a three-movement work entitled Orion, scored for a huge orchestra. The mood remains consistent, although it grows menacingly in dynamic climaxing at about seven minutes. The picture which came to mind was of a dripping stalactite in a shadowy cave, although a feeling of deep, obscure outer space could also be concluded. Pure Saariaho, I feel.

True Fire can be described as an orchestral song cycle, but for me it is a five-movement symphony with voice. The proof of the pudding is in the admission that the work was being composed before any texts were discovered and decided upon. The orchestral writing is colourful and brilliant, often translucent and gleaming. The vocal part, especially in the first three sections, is mannered and unvaried in its word setting. Sometimes it loses the sense of what these dense and complex poems are saying. They are by Ralph Waldo Emerson from his Essays called ‘Spiritual Laws’ (movements 1,3 and 5), Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Spirit Level’, and a song of the Tewa people (the original native Americans) ‘The Cloud-flower Lullaby’. This movement (the fourth) is the only one with some life and vitality about it in which the setting helps to convey something of the meaning of the text. The fifth movement is a drawn-out setting of a moving poem by Mahmoud Darwish ‘The last train has stopped’.

The cycle was written for Gerald Finley, who sang its first performance. This live recording comes from two years later. The songs lie well on his voice, and he captures the essence of each with perfect diction and clear intonation. The orchestral balance is ideal. The texts are included. The composer could have asked for none better than the sympathetic Hannu Lintu to draw out of the Finnish Radio Orchestra every luminous detail of her writing.

Gary Higginson



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