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Kaija SAARIAHO (b. 1952)
Notes on Light (2006) [27:31]
Orion (2002) [21:58]
Mirage (2007) [13:37]
 Karita Mattila (soprano: Mirage); Anssi Karttunen (cello: Notes, Mirage)
Orchestre de Paris/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. live, Salle Pleyel, Paris, 12-13 March 2008
 ONDINE ODE1130-2 [63:06]
Experience Classicsonline

As that of her near-contemporary colleague Magnus Lindberg, Saariaho's music has been fairly well served in terms of commercial recordings, at first on Finlandia and now on Ondine. The disc under review offers three recent works composed between 2002 and 2007 in recordings that do full justice to the composer's refined and often arresting sound world. A common feature shared by these works is that none of them mixes live sounds and electronics.
Some time ago I reviewed another live recording of Orion (Warner Classics 2564 61952-2) - readers are best referred to that review . Suffice it to say that Orion is Saariaho's largest orchestral work so far. It is in three movements : Memento mori, Winter Sky and Hunter.
Notes on Light is Saariaho's second cello concerto, the first one being Amers composed in 1992. A recording of it is available on Sony SK 60817 which I reviewed here several years ago. Light has always been important to the composer and one of her early works was Lichtbogen (roughly "Northern Lights"). Notes on Light is in five movements and the title of each movement more or less hints at what to expect of the music : Translucent, secret; On fire; Awakening; Eclipse and Heart of Light. Incidentally, the title of the fifth movement comes from a few lines from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. "… I could not/Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living or dead, and I knew nothing/Looking into the heart of light, the silence". The mostly mysterious first movement is followed by some sort of devilish Scherzo. Awakening is a rather longer and more developed movement with some more emphasis on lyrical lines and warmer orchestral colours. Eclipse is a short, static section in which the soloist is momentarily silent. The final movement begins somewhat tentatively, but textures open-up with a downward motif variously repeated throughout the movement, whereas the music remains mysterious till reaching the unresolved coda. The fairly large orchestral forces are often used sparingly but with Saariaho's typical refinement to telling effect. The fiendishly difficult solo part was tailor-made for Karttunen's artistry. Karttunen navigates almost effortlessly throughout this demanding but ultimately highly rewarding and beautiful work. I firmly believe that Notes on Light is one of the finest cello concertos that I have heard recently and one that often brought Dutilleux's own concerto to mind; and this I mean as a compliment.
A double concerto for voice, cello and orchestra, Mirage sets words by the trance-induced incantations of the Mexican shaman and healer María Sabina, albeit sung in English translation. Although the opening promises much, I found this work somewhat less gripping than the others here. I would be tempted to say that the setting of these mescal-fuelled incantations is a bit too "clean", too polished to do full justice to the surreal character of the words and that it would have made more impact if set in a raw, Varèse-like incantatory manner. This is nevertheless a fine work in the rather limited repertoire of double concertos for voice and instrument.
In spite of this minor reservation about Mirage, this is a splendid release that does Saariaho's refined, subtle and often quite beautiful music full justice. The recording is up to this label's finest standards and one hardly notices that these are live recordings. This superb release is a most valuable and rewarding addition to Saariaho's growing discography that should not be missed.
Hubert Culot 

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