Reconnaissance - Kaija Saariaho Choral Music. Helsinki Chamber Choir / Nils Schweckendiek. © 2023 BIS Records AB

CD Spotlight

Saariaho's Last Gift

JOHN DANTE PREVEDINI is impressed by BIS Records' tribute to the Finnish composer

'... a palpable sense of closeness and immediacy ...'


Reconnaissance is the upcoming release from BIS Records of six choral works, including four in world premiere recordings, composed by the recently deceased Kaija Saariaho and performed by the Helsinki Chamber Choir and the Uusinta Ensemble under the baton of Nils Schweckendiek. The eighty-two-minute album, which will be available in both CD and digital format, includes an extensive booklet with liner notes on each piece by Saariaho and collaborating librettist Aleksi Barrière (her son) in English, German and French. In addition, the booklet features translations of sung texts and an artistic statement by Saariaho on her lifelong compositional practice. The album, which was completed prior to Saariaho's passing on 2 June, is now posthumously dedicated by BIS to her memory.

The four works heard on the album in world premiere recordings are Horloge, tais-toi! (2005), Écho! (2007), Überzeugung (2001) and the eponymous Reconnaissance (2020). The other two works - previously recorded by other ensembles - are Tag des Jahrs (2001), placed in the midpoint of the album between Écho! and Überzeugung, and Nuits, adieux, which actually appears twice on the album in separate versions. The album opens with the 1991 version for four voices and electronics, and it closes with the 1996 a cappella version for four solo voices and choir, thus lending a powerful symmetry to the album's layout. Nuits, adieux, an eight-movement setting of texts by Jacques Roubaud and Honoré de Balzac, is presented here with both versions conveying a palpable sense of closeness and immediacy, allowing us to hear the many subtle and fundamental differences between the two.

Following the 1991 version of Nuits, adieux is the three-minute Horloge, tais-toi! for women's choir with piano, a rather madrigalistic setting of a text written by Barrière at age fifteen. The words express irritation at the sound of a loud clock and, indeed, the bewilderingly fast passage of time itself. Here we see Saariaho at perhaps her most playful, albeit with a hint of existential urgency, employing a wide range of imitative textures and onomatopoeic techniques that include wordplay and vocal percussion. In service to the text, her rhythm is uncharacteristically metronomic, fixed at a tempo that is - appropriately - slightly faster than the ticking of a normal clock.

Listen — Kaija Saariaho: Horloge, tais-toi!
(BIS-2662 track 9, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2023 BIS Records AB :

Next is the three-movement Écho! for eight voices and electronics, a setting of a text by Barrière recounting the myth of Echo and Narcissus. Here, the electronics provide a sustained and reverberant complement to the voices, which sing the text in a moderately declamatory style with a subtle sense of continuous momentum over the course of the three movements. Saariaho states in the liner notes that this piece was composed in tribute to Olivier Messiaen.

Listen — Kaija Saariaho: Dolce, energico (Écho!)
(BIS-2662 track 10, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2023 BIS Records AB :

This is followed by the Helsinki Chamber Choir's interpretation of the aforementioned Tag des Jahrs for mixed chorus and electronics, a setting of Friedrich Hölderlin's poems reflecting on the seasons of the year. The rendering on this album seems to give the work an immediate and continuous intensity that confronts the listener over the course of the four movements.

Next is the single-movement Überzeugung, whose text is also by Hölderlin. Saariaho indicates in the booklet that this work was composed for the Salzburg Music Festival as a tribute to their departing general director, Gerard Mortier. The text - Hölderlin's brief meditation on the origins of knowledge - is set with slow, spacious music for three women's voices, crotales, violin and cello in what is perhaps the brightest and most optimistic of Saariaho's sound worlds showcased on the album.

Listen — Kaija Saariaho: Überzeugung
(BIS-2662 track 17, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2023 BIS Records AB :

Completing the album is the world premiere recording of the eponymous Reconnaissance for mixed chorus, percussion and double bass. This recent twenty-five-minute work, in five movements with an interlude, is the setting of a libretto compiled and co-authored by Barrière, portraying a dystopian science fiction story of humanity's mission to colonize Mars after depleting Earth of its resources. Barrière indicates in the liner notes that the work's title has a bilingual duality of meaning, in both the English sense of a military expedition and the French sense of a 'rediscovery'.

The multilingual text, according to the booklet, also incorporates excerpts of Russian dialogue by Andrei Tarkovsky and Fridrikh Gorenshtein from the 1972 film Solaris and quotations in the Hopi language by Ekkehart Malotki and Michael Lomatuway'ma. Saariaho's music draws upon the full range of her lifelong choral and instrumental practices to enshrine the libretto's dire message in a sonic monument. The dramatic power of her vocal lines, the timbral sensitivity of her scoring, the structural balance of her large-scale forms, the resourcefulness of her text setting and the urgency and immediacy of her compositional voice all come together in Reconnaissance in ways that make it appear to have been a lifetime in the making. Because of these factors, in combination with the increasing relevance of its subject matter, I foresee that it will likely be remembered as a defining choral masterwork of our era.

Listen — Kaija Saariaho: The First Martian in a Long Time (Reconnaissance)
(BIS-2662 track 18, 0:23-0:53) ℗ 2023 BIS Records AB :

The album Reconnaissance was, of course, never intended as an epitaph. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to imagine a more fitting summary of, or introduction to, the character, spirit and life's work of Kaija Saariaho on a single disk, especially where her choral repertoire is concerned. To quote her artistic statement on choral music from the booklet, 'the entire range of verbal expression is available to be woven into a multi-layered and heterogeneous whole'. The remarkable array of works showcased here - and mostly in recording premieres, no less - demonstrates just how dedicated she was to this principle over the course of so many decades.

In addition, by presenting two contrasting versions of the same piece (Nuits, adieux) together, the album provides a rare example of a composer's process of revisiting the same material for different times and places, allowing us a glimpse into a whole other dimension of Saariaho's musical thinking. Lastly, the album is a testament to her ongoing collaboration with other members of the musical community, including high-profile colleagues and young family members alike. How fortunate we are to have this one last gift from Saariaho, a document that not only expands the discography of her critically important oeuvre but also serves as a testament for future generations to the example of a composer's life exceptionally well lived.

Copyright © 17 June 2023 John Dante Prevedini,
Connecticut, USA



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