Clément Mao-Takacs, Kaija Saariaho, and Peter Herresthal on the cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of Naxos of America)
At the beginning of last month, BIS Records released an album of the orchestral music of Kaija Saariaho. The ensemble is the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Clément Mao-Takacs. The album is framed by two compositions for violin and orchestra with Peter Herresthal as soloist. The first of these is the world premiere recording of “Vers toi qui es si loin” (to you who are so far), a transcription of the final aria from Saariaho’s 2000 opera L’Amour de loin (love from afar), which she composed in 2018. This is complemented by her first concerto completed in 1994, “Graal théâtre,” inspired by legends of the Grail as L’Amour de loin had been inspired by the twelfth-century troubadour Jaufre Rudel. Between these two compositions, Mao-Takacs conducts the 2012 large-orchestra composition “Circle Map” and the twelve-cello version of “Neiges” (snow), composed in 1998 and also given its world premiere recording.
As I have previously observed, much of my interest in Saariaho comes from her balance of theory and practice. As a researcher, Saariaho used her tenure at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music in English) in Paris to acquire a deeper understanding of the nature of sound itself. The theoretical results of her investigations were then put into practice through her compositions. Initially this involved working with both analog and digital synthesis (well supported by the hardware and software available at IRCAM); but Saariaho turned her attention to creating sonorities with conventional instruments, drawing upon the spectral qualities of the instruments themselves and the effects of alternative performance techniques.
Thus, through all four of the compositions on this new album, the listener is introduced to a prodigious diversity of sonorities, all of which are applied to “narrative themes” suggested by the titles of those compositions. To be fair, I have been fortunate enough to build up a rich body of listening experience where Saariaho’s techniques are concerned. Thus, almost a year ago, I had my first encounter with “Graal théâtre” through a Cedille Records album featuring violinist Jennifer Koh; and, at the Center for New Music in June of 2016, the debut concert by CELLOSCAPE COLLECTIVE included the eight-cello version of “Neiges.” I also enjoying watching the Metropolitan Opera telecast of L’Amour de loin and was reminded of that experience within the first few measures of “Vers toi qui es si loin.”
Nevertheless, I feel it fair to inform readers that I have been listening to Saariaho’s music pretty much for as long as I have been writing about my listening experiences. I thus feel some obligation to let readers know that, just as Euclid cautioned the pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter that there is no royal road to geometry, getting to know Saariaho’s music requires some time for the listener to acclimate to both her technical and rhetorical skills. Mind you, I do not need to emphasize my feeling that this was time well spent, since I have never been shy in declaring my enthusiasm!