Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ethereal orchestral works by Saariaho

Saariaho: Works for Orchestra
Various Artists

The nice thing about listening to a bunch of works by the same composer in quick succession is that I get a glimpse of the broader picture.

This new four-disc set of Kaija Saariaho presents the Finnish composer's orchestral works spanning the past  25 years. The pieces are arranged in chronological order, and Ondine's assigned a theme to each disc, which helps the listener make sense of Saariaho's development.

Disc One: From  outer space to crystal and smoke
Saariaho's earliest orchestral works show her slowly breaking away from the rigidity of atonal composition and into a more emotional world of sound clouds and atmospheric orchestration. Lichtbogen (Northern Lights) points the way to the works to follow in the set.

Disc Two: The enchantment of the human voice
Some composers treat the human voice as something unique -- others as just another instrument. Saariaho seems to use it as a way to more fully articulate the emotional content of her music. The works on this disc don't have any melodies you can whistle along to, but they still command attention. The expressiveness of the vocal lines leave no doubt as to the emotions driving the music.

Disc Three: Organic unity and new versions
It's not unusual for composers to revisit earlier material. The works on this disc all started out as something different. Cinq reflets de "L'Amour de loin,"  for example, is a song cycle based on material from the opera of the same name. But only based on -- Saariaho changed the voices around and composed new material that takes the original material in an entirely new direction.

Disc Four: New sounds of the 2000s
These works, all written after 2001 show a composer in full command of her talent. Saariaho's latest works have more of tonal feel to them, but only up to a point. Saariaho is still primarily concerned with communicating emotion, and if the most effective way to do it is with a more traditional sound (at least temporarily), then so be it.

As I listened to this compilation, the words I kept jotting down were "mysterious," "atmospheric," and "ethereal." Those terms, I think, apply to the entire collection. Saariaho: Works for Orchestra is a great way to become acquainted with a major voice of contemporary music.

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