Just as Busoni would produce what the Busoni scholar Anthony Beaumont calls 'satellite works' from his operas, so too does Kaija Saariaho, and here are three of them - two operatic in origin, one instrumental - in a logical and highly attractive bit of programming. Over the past few years Saariaho's music has shown an increasing tendency towards lyricism, and her already sensitive orchestral tectures have taken on a rare degree of transparency and delicacy - and this CD makes an ideal shop-window for what are clearly expressive gains in her work.
Cinq reflets de L'Amour de loin is a half-hour song-cycle drawn, as its title makes clear, from the opera L'Amour de loin, premiered in 2000. It retains the soprano and baritone protagonists of the opera, the third of the five songs quoting and adapting material by Jaufré Rudel, the troubadour who loves the far-off lady, gradually absorbing it into the gossamer soundscapes of Saariaho's own music, static, lyrical, gently hieratic. The Cinq reflets were drawn from L'Amour de Loin after the event; Oltra mar, a seven-movement suite for chorus and orchestra, predated it, being a study of the musical and philosophical concerns the opera would tackle: turn about, the movements set texts meditating on love, time and death and vocalise in evocations of the sea. A sense of scale and a gentleness of manner co-exist here in a balancing act of extraordinary subtlety.
Nymphea Reflection for string orchestra takes its starting point Nymphea, written for the Kronos Quartet - with electronics - in 1987, with Saariaho using the resources of the orchestral strings to subsume the electronic effects into the instrumental textures, including the spectral sounds of the computer-analysed cello chord which furnished the harmonic basis of the piece. Naturally, then, it sounds much more overtly modernist than the other two pieces here, with which it thus forms an effective contrast, although its six sections, each addressing different textural concerns, themselves turn through a variety of tensions, from Bartókian stabbing chords to wheeling Ligetian clusters and more.
Jukka-Pekka Saraste manages to suggest the expansiveness of Saariaho's visions without betraying the refinement of her manner, his two vocal soloists, chorus and orchestral musicians all serve him, and her, excellently, and Ondine's recording engineers have done them all proud., Finnish Music Quarterly, 4/1/2005
[Cinq reflets] is a nicely judged précis of the larger work showing that while her music has become more overtly melodic it has lost none of its textural subtlety. [The full] opera, L'Amour de loin, first performed in Salzburg in 2000, will surely appear complete on disc before too long.Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 11/5/2004
The three works on this disc make for an excellently contrasted programme, each highly individual but also utterly characteristic of the deeply impressive, spectral-influenced music of Kaija Saariaho. First comes Cinq relfets, a 30-minute adaptation of five crucial scenes from Saariaho's Grawemeyer Prize-winning opera of 2000, L'amour de loin, written to a libretto by Amin Malouf. Its exquisitely coloured textures are very Gallic sounding, sensual, transparent and shimmering, rather like those found in Boulez's music, and the general atmosphere is rather Pelléas-like, though more aching than dark.
The Countess sings of longing in the first movement, while in the second the Troubadour recounts a dream in which he sees his distant beloved and hears her singing, offering Saariaho the opportunity for some fascinating multi-layered writing. The third reflection comes from the scene where the Pilgrim sings to the Countess the Troubadour's love-song - only now it's the Troubadour himself singing. His haunting tune, accompanied by Medieval-sounding drone-like fifths, clears away the misty orchestral introduction. Then comes the beautiful 'Si la mort pouvait attendre', the death scene in Act 5, a sad, static, yet somehow objectified duet between the Countess and the dying Troubadour, before, in the final reflection, taken from the opera's Epilogue, we hear the countess singing in her convent, another static, shimmering, reflective piece in which Saariaho reflects that belief in love's fulfilment itself. Soprano Pia Freund and baritone Gabriel Suovanen are the soloists here, and both sing with rapt expression, while conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste inspires beautiful playing from the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The second work on the disc is Nymphéa Reflection, a piece for string orchestra composed in 2001 and derived, again, from something Saariaho wrote earlier. In this case the model was Nymphea, a quartet and electronics work, composed for the Kronos Quartet in 1987, whose entire harmonic material stems from an analysis of one abrasive bowed cello note. Here the electronics are replaced by real instruments. The soundscape is rich and varied and fascinating. Sometimes during the source of its six movements there are Ligeti-like masses of sound and tendril-like complex counterpoints. Elsewhere Saariaho exploits tensions between noise and clearly enunciated pitches or rhythms. On one level it's a piece about the nature and the power of sound itself, though the urgently whispered text in the final 'Misterioso' - which turns out to be a poem by Arseni Tarkovski about the human longing for something richer than mere worldly existence - indicates Saariaho's deeper philosophical preoccupations. This receives another fine reading from the Finnish orchestra under Saraste.
Last comes Oltra mar, a seven-movement piece written for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1999. On one level this is the most immediately impressive of the three works. It's massive and solid, demanding a chamber choir which sings meditations on love, time and death in movements two, four and six. It has a certain upfront directness, for instance in the way it builds and insists on its opening chord, in the way it crescendos with a certain inevitability. There's an obvious relationship between this music and the brute power of the sea.Stephen Pettitt, International Record Review, 3/1/2005
Song plays a major role in Ondine's release of three orchestral works by Kaija Saariaho. Two have connections with her opera, L'Amour de loin: the song cycle Cinq reflets, a redevelopment of material from five key scenes in the opera, and the suite with chorus, Oltra Mar, composed as preparation for the opera itself.
[Cinq reflets] is ravishing, with some surprisingly opulent scoring. The vocal lines sound glorious to sing and Pia Freund, reprising her operatic role, and Gabriel Suovanen present them lovingly.
One can hear Saariaho moving towards this warm and lyrical operatic manner in the 'seven preludes for the new millenium', Oltra Mar. Although the chorus sing throughout, only three preludes, Love, Time and Death, have texts. Chorus and orchestra are beautifully balanced and the result captivates the ear. A different type of enchantment occurs in Nymphea Reflection, a recomposition for string orchestra of her string-quartet-with-electronics Nymphea. The orchestral body allowed the composer to replace the electronic effects with acoustic ones, although in the concluding section (of six) an Arseni Tarkovsky poem is added. A splendid disc, brilliantly performed with exceptional sound.Guy Rickards, Nordic Sounds, 3/1/2005
Not surprisingly, given the scope of the project, Saariaho's opera L'amour de loin has generated a number of related works, either in the sense of revisiting specific materials (as in Cinq reflets...) or in the exploration of germane ideas or topics (Oltra mar, which bears the additional programmatic subtitle 'Seven preludes for the new millenium'). Nymphea Reflection similarly revisits an earlier piece, 1987's string quartet with electronics. In addition to the large canvas shared by all three works (including string and full orchestras, choir and vocal soloists), this programme therefore has a pleasing coherence.
The debt to the much earlier quartet doubtless explains why Nymphea Reflection is so different to the Cinq reflets, despite their having been written in the same year (2001). The string orchestra takes over the role that the electronics assumed in the earlier work to the extent (one example among several) that players are entrusted with vocal utterances in the last movement. But the sound world is still very different, being more broad-brush; then again, massed strings tend naturally to confer a warmer, more expressive tone to individual lines than is the case with a quartet. The lushest of the three works is Oltra mar, in which Saariaho's spectralist influences are subsumed within rather grand gestures marrying orchestra and choir. This is probably the closest that she comes to grandiloquence; but for those who have heard L'amour de loin and await its availability on disc, the Cinq reflets provide something of an hors d'oeuvre. The performances do credit to all concerned... in each case Saariaho's re-engagement with her materials attempts something fresh.Fabrice Fitch, Gramophone, 6/1/2005