Friday 17 May 2013

Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone, full of passion, beauty and evocative orchestral and electronic sounds on a new release from Ondine

Back in April 2012 I asked the question ‘why does Finland continue to produce so many fine composers?’
In that blog I only gave Kaija Saariaho (b.1952) a brief mention but on the evidence of a fine new recording of her La Passion de Simone she is a major figure in Finnish music.  

Kaija Saariaho had a musical childhood, playing several instruments. In addition to her musical studies, she studied art at the Fine Arts School of Helsinki. However, she soon decided to concentrate on music, studying at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki  where she was taught composition by Paavo Heininen (b. 1938) . Later, in Darmstadt and then Fribourg she studied with Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943) and Klaus Huber (b. 1924)

Saariaho’s compositions during the 1980’s were characterised by her sensual, descriptive and lyrical writing with subtly unfolding transformations. Her search for new timbres led her to study new techniques in instrumental as well as the computer realm. For this purpose she spent some time at Ircam and it is these studies that have constituted an important element of her compositions.

Her international notoriety was confirmed with works such as Verblendungen for orchestra and tape (1982-84), Lichtbogen for chamber ensemble and live-electronics (1985-86), and Nymphéa (1987) a commission from the Lincoln Centre for the Kronos Quartet. Since the1990s, her music has become more expressive, often faster in its melodic fluctuations with stronger rhythmical elements. What has remained central to her compositional style are timbre and colours.

Saariaho’s principle works include a violin concerto, Graal théâtre, written for Gidon Kremer in 1995; two works dedicated to Dawn Upshaw,  Château de l’âme premiered at the Salzbourg Festival in 1996; Lonh, a cycle of melodies for soprano and electronics premiered at the Wien Modern Festival in 1996; Oltra mar for orchestra and mixed choir, premiered in 1999 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; a flute concerto, Aile du songe,  composed for Camilla Hoitenga (2001); Nymphea Reflexion for string orchestra, dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach (2001); Orion for the Cleveland Orchestra (2002); and Quatre Instants, for soprano, piano/orchestra, for Karita Mattila, premiered in April 2003.

Her first opera, L’Amour de loin, with a libretto by Amin Maalouf and staging by Peter Sellars, was a great success at its premiere at the Salzbourg Festival in 2000, and won the Grawemeyer Composition Award in 2003. Her second opera, Adriana Mater, on an original libretto by Amin Maalouf, was also staged by Peter Sellars, at Opéra Bastille in March 2006.

Kaija Saariaho’s vast oratorio, La Passion de Simone, was a commission from the Wien Festival, the Los Angeles Philharmonic , the Barbican  and Lincoln Centres . The text of this work, by Amin Maalouf , concerns the life and works of the philosopher Simone Weil . It was premiered in November 2006 in Vienna, flowed by London, Helsinki, Stockholm and New York.

It is Ondine that have just released this new recording made in the Helsinki Music Centre, Finland with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Tapiola Chamber Choir  conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen  with Dawn Upshaw (soprano) and Dominique Blanc (reader).

ODE 1217-5

La Passion de Simone  -  Chemin musical en quinze stations (Musical path in fifteen stations) echoes the Stations of the Cross marking Jesus’ progress to Calvary. The events in Simone Weil’s life are viewed through the eyes of an imaginary sister and throughout the orchestra combines with electronic sounds whilst also having an important part for spoken voice or ‘reader’.

The oratorio opens with a gloriously atmospheric Premiere Station with a lovely orchestration combined with electronic sounds perfectly blended. Soprano Dawn Upshaw enters on the words ‘Simone, grande soeur’ (Simone, my elder sister) with the constantly shifting orchestral part providing a wonderful support.  Dawn Upshaw is, as usual, terrific. This station ends with words quietly spoken by Dominique Blanc making an effective conclusion.

Chorus and orchestra open Deuxième Station before the soprano enters in this faster section, still full of sensuous orchestral writing. The drama is very well maintained with never a bland moment. Troisième Station has a quiet opening before a sudden outburst from the orchestra. The soprano enters but orchestral outbursts still occur. The reader appears with the short phrase ‘To hold one’s attention towards…’ Drooping sounds in the orchestra lead to a section for soprano before an orchestral outburst. The orchestra quietens before the reader re-enters in a magical moment speaking the words ‘To know how to listen to silence.’

The Quatrième Station has a short orchestral opening before the soprano enters, still with some magical orchestral sounds. Dawn Upshaw is outstanding, so effortlessly conveying the feeling of the text. She is always musical, even when giving so much emotion to the text. There is a further orchestral section towards the end, full of anguished outbursts. Cinquième Station lightens the atmosphere somewhat with a bright unaccompanied chorus before the soprano and percussion enter in this movement that evokes mechanical and industrial sounds linked to Simone Weil’s time whilst experiencing work in a factory.

Powerful industrial sounds from the orchestra continue in the Sixième Station with the chorus soon joining. When the reader enters it is against a hovering static orchestra. Again the orchestra bursts out, joined by the chorus, before the reader returns with the static, atmospheric orchestral and electronic sounds. There is an underlying, colossal, orchestral menace.

Septième Station opens with a cor anglais against a quiet orchestra before the soprano enters accompanied by the cor anglais in this strikingly stark section, relieved only by occasional orchestral contributions along with the chorus. Dawn Upshaw again shows how terrific she is in this taxing music. There is a gentle opening to Huitième Station with lovely orchestral sounds before the soprano sings alone above the reader’s voice leading to an extended orchestral section flowing along in a gorgeously atmospheric melody, so skilfully written.

Neuvième Station has a brighter orchestral opening before the soprano enters with the words ‘One should know how to love God for Himself.’ The chorus interjects with the same words before the soprano continues as the music becomes more animated. It calms when chorus re-enters but, when she returns, the soprano becomes more passionate. There is a section for chorus and orchestra before the soprano re-enters over the choir in a sumptuous section, full of passion. The orchestra rises, with dominant brass, before the music drops as it moves into the Dixième Station with gentle tambourine sounds against the orchestra. The chorus and reader quietly intone before the soprano joins the orchestra in this luscious music full of hazy sounds. There is another section for orchestra, chorus and reader in a hushed moment after which the soprano returns starkly against the orchestra with forbidding sounds as she sings ‘Alone standing in the middle of darkness’ The reader quietly ends this station as the orchestra fades in this very effective moment.

The soprano and a solo flute open the Onzième Station before the whole orchestra joins. Again there are parts for soprano and reader in this dramatic piece. There is a strident outburst with percussion when the soprano re-joins. Eventually the reader re-enters in a haunting section with the words ‘Fear of Death. The foundation of slavery.’  There are orchestral outbursts and an increasingly dramatic soprano part, wonderfully sung and full of passion before the orchestra leads to the Douzième Station where the fine Tapiola Chamber Choir have a more dominant role. The reader again speaks with static orchestral sounds before a plaintive orchestral section leads to a minor outburst, with brass, before being joined by the chorus over a less strident, often sumptuous, orchestra.

The Treizième Station opens with delicate orchestral sounds with bells before the soprano sings ‘Slowly, you gave up the ghost, my little sister Simone’ The chorus intersperses with the repeated words ‘At the age of thirty four in a hospital in England.’  The orchestra remains pensive, with shifting harmonies. The reader returns at the end with a haunting theme from the orchestra.

There is an orchestral opening to the Quatorzième Station before the soprano enters against atmospheric orchestra sounds, with percussion, as the music slowly moves along. The reader becomes increasingly emotional when she speaks of ‘Every evil aroused in the world.’ There are strange darting sounds from the strings before the soprano and orchestra slowly lead us on in this funereal station.

The Ultime Station opens with an orchestral outburst full of nervous energy before first the soprano, then chorus, then speaker take their parts in hauntingly unsettling music. The soprano becomes more agitated. There are haunting orchestral sounds before the soprano again returns, and the orchestra heaves its way forward. The soprano sings ‘Your grace was liberated from the gravity of the world…’ as the orchestra leads to a hushed coda.

This is a glorious work, full of passion, beauty and evocative orchestral and electronic sounds. It is in no way derivative. It is notable that I did not think of any other composer when listening to it. Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Tapiola Chamber Choir could not be better. Dawn Upshaw gives a terrific performance. A special mention should be given to the ‘reader’, Dominique Blanc, whose performance adds so much to this recording.

The recording, made after a live concert performance, is really excellent. The booklet has excellent notes together with texts and translations. I shall be seeking out more music from this inspired composer.

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