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Kaija SAARIAHO (b.1952)
Quatre instants (2002 [20:11]
Terra memoria (2009) [17:49]
Émilie Suite (2011) [32:46]
Karen Vourc’h (soprano)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Marko Letonja
rec. 12-14 July 2014, Neugartheim-Ittlenheim Hall, France (Quatre instants and Émilie Suite); 28-29 October 2013, Cité de la musique de Strasbourg, France (Terra memoria)
ONDINE ODE1255-2 [71:13]

The Finnish label Ondine have been doing their compatriot Saariaho proud of late and here is another disc of her atmospheric neo-impressionist works. Quatre instants is a song cycle, the Émilie Suite a compressed version of an opera and, between them we have Terra memoria for string orchestra. They have in common that all three are reworkings of earlier versions. They also appear to be all first recordings though Ondine does not claim them as such.

Quatre instants was originally written for soprano and piano but that version does not seem to have yet been commercially recorded. Saariaho orchestrated it later for small orchestra. The texts are by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, with whom she has often collaborated – he wrote the libretto for her wonderful opera L’amour de loin – and, like the composer, he now lives in Paris. She apparently originally intended to set texts in Finnish but couldn’t find anything suitable, so she asked Malouf to help, and he provided some short passages in French, which are all about love. The four songs are: Attente (longing), Douleur (torment), Parfum de l’instant (perfume of the moment) and Résonances (echoes). These are all erotic and sensual, well suited to her idiom. This work has a gleaming and glittering surface, with fine filigree work in which tuned percussion is prominent, while the voice soars and dips. One aspect of Saariaho’s vocal writing is that the voice often merges with or hands over to an instrument, and is treated in some ways as if it were itself an instrument itself. The idiom is reminiscent of Szymanowski’s orchestral song-cycles or Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Saariaho’s cycle can stand the comparison. It was originally written for Karita Mattila; not surprisingly several sopranos have taken it up since.

Terra Memoria was originally commissioned for the Emerson quartet and later expanded for string orchestra. Again the quartet version has not been recorded and I do not know whether the orchestral one is a straight transcription, as with the two versions of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, or whether it involved some recomposition. Saariaho says “in the title ‘earth’ refers to the musical material and ‘memory’ to how it is handled”. This is a single movement work which starts with wisps and fragments of sound on the edge of silence which gradually coalesce into an endless slow melody which itself transforms into more and more passionate statements until at the climax there is a series of great crunching chords, after which the music gradually subsides. The foreground melodies are surrounded by all sorts of decorative and elaborate excursions employing the whole range of string techniques. It is an impressive and beautiful work, much fiercer than Quatre Instants, more late Bartók than early Schoenberg – I was reminded of the string fugue which opens Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

The Émilie Suite is the main work here. It is derived from an opera about the Marquise Émilie du Châtelet, an eighteenth century aristocrat who used her social position to pursue a career in science. The opera is a monodrama: Émilie is the only character, as with Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. The action of the opera covers one night when Émilie, aged 42, is late in a pregnancy and also struggling to complete her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. In fact she died shortly after giving birth but her translation established itself as the standard one in French. The libretto is again by Amin Malouf. The complete opera is in nine sections which together last 80 minutes; the suite is in five movements which last less than half this time, three vocal numbers being separated by two orchestral interludes. A harpsichord is prominent in the score but electronics, which featured in the original, are here omitted. The opening scene, Pressentiments (forebodings) begins with flurries on the harpsichord before Émilie enters, initially parlando then more passionately, as she writes to her lover, the child’s father. Her horrible forebodings are echoed in the orchestra. A brooding interlude evokes night with long held chords and little sounds as of insects. In her second scene, Principia, she reflects on her daily routine, interspersed with passages from her Newton translation. These are allowed to expand lyrically, embodying her absorption in her work. The second interlude features tinkling and jangling sounds over a pulsing bass which lead to a lament on the oboe. In the final scene, Contre l’oubli (against oblivion) Émilie anticipates dying but with her translation finished which will mean she is remembered. Plaintive woodwind lines lead to a haunting ending for orchestra alone. The work is melancholy but also uplifting, as Saariaho does convey Émilie’s commitment to her work and the inspiration she gets from it.

The orchestral playing under Marko Letonja is assured and Karen Vourc’h performs both vocal works with eloquence. She is balanced rather forward and this emphasizes an occasional unsteadiness in her voice and makes the climaxes rather sharp-edged. The recording is full and rich, rather in the Chandos manner. The booklet offers notes in three languages and the sung texts in French and English. Despite my slight reservations about Karen Vourc’h this is a memorable disc and a valuable addition to Saariaho’s growing discography.

Stephen Barber


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