Album review: Splendid Saariaho Songbook by Anu Komsi and Pia Värri

Over the past forty years or so, Kaija Saariaho has written a substantial body of elaborately evocative songs for solo voice(s) with keyboard accompaniment. Alongside her operas, orchestral scores and chamber works, often extended with electronics, the intimate intensity of Saariaho’s songs add yet another wonderful layer into her fascinatingly multi-faceted output.

On their new album, titled Sumun läpi (Through the Mist) soprano Anu Komsi and pianist Pia Värri present us with a notable survey of Saariaho’s vocal output, ranging from the early 1980s to the world premiere recording of her most recent song cycle, Saarikoski Songs. Both longtime collaborators with the composer, Komsi and Värri provide the listener with outstandingly nuanced and tremendously expressive performances of the five works recorded here, resulting in an absolutely essential album presentation of Saariaho’s oeuvre for soprano and piano.

The most eagerly anticipated item on the new disc is, naturally, the five-movement Saarikoski Songs (2013-20), based on the poetry of Pentti Saarikoski, one of the key figures of the Finnish literary scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Commissioned by Komsi, the cycle was begun with a single setting of the poem Luonnon kasvot (The Face of nature), originally conceived as a standalone piece in 2013. However, over the years to come, Saarikoski’s 1973 collection Alue (The District) provided further inspiration for Saariaho, yielding to a cycle, completed during the pandemic lockdown in April 2020.

The cycle opens with an evocative vocalise introduction, ot of which the first setting, Luonnon kasvot gradually emerges. The vocal line muses on text with sensuous reflection, accompanied by piano textures, played from the keyboard and strings alike. In the closing section, vocalise and text blend into sublimely enthralling sonic theatre, eventually evaporating into silence.

The second song, Jokaisella on tämänsä (Everyone will have their own this) assumes more straightforwardly dramatic guise, both in terms of its heated vocal part and the vibrant piano lines. Its counterpart, Kaikki tämä (All of this) comes off as the meditative, quasi-static core of the cycle. Both written in 2017, the two songs form a compelling pair.

The two last songs, composed in the midst of the Finnish Covid realities, constitute another riveting pair. Minussa lintu ja käärme (In me the bird and the snake) is given a vehemently shaking sonic form, aptly reflecting the mental landscape of the pandemic. To complete the cycle’s near-symmetry, the final song, Sumun läpi (Through the mist) is again an extended one. In terms of mood and texture, the movement alters between static and subtly kinetic sonic imagery, as if gazing towards some pale-lighted, elusive horizon.

Performed with profound dedication and extraordinary detail, Saarikoski Songs get an absolutely luminous premiere recording on the new album. Refined and illustrative, the five songs give rise to a splendidly communicative journey through a sequence of resonant soundscapes, where music and text are organically joined into one expressive entity of extraordinary vividness.

Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhausorchester, the composer orchestrated the cycle last year for the Boston world premiere, ahead in February 2022, with Komsi as soloist and Music Director Andris Nelsons on the podium. As for the soprano and piano original, the complete cycle will be performed live by Komsi and Värri for the first time in its entirety on 7 September at the Helsinki Music Centre.

Composed in 2000-07 for Komsi, the four Leino Songs are based on the poetry of Eino Leino, one of the most important Finnish poets at the turn of the 20th century. His archaic-sounding poetry fuses together symbolism and romanticism into multi-layered lyric tableaux, with inherent musical potential. The four songs contained in the cycle, Looking at You, The Heart, Eveining Prayer and Peace are set in their original Finnish. In addition to the piano version recorded here, the songs appear in orchestral guises as well, recorded by Komsi and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo for Ondine in 2011.

Scored for voice and keyboard, the songs bear invigorating instantaneousness in their detailed textural and emotional layout, beautifully conveyed by Komsi and Värri. While their musical language is, in many ways, connected to the realm of Saariaho’s operatic writing, they nevertheless inhabit a musical sphere highly their own. Some of the songs, most notably Evening Prayer, are certainly meditative, but others resort into substantial expressive arches, giving rise to highly effective musical and dramaturgical juxtapostitions, perhaps most prominently manifested by the white-heat glow of The Heart.

Completing the cycle, the outer movements, Looking at You and Peace constitute two riveting musical moments, extended in time and space. Both intense and ethereal, their musical substance is marvellously aligned with the nuances of the texts, impeccably clad in wondrous sonorous hue by Komsi and Värri.

Framing the two wonderful song cycles, three intriguing early works by Saariaho make their disc appearances as well, providing some illuminating glimpses of the composer’s musical roots.

Cast in three two-minute movements, Preludi – Tunnustus – Postludi (1980) is a setting of excerpts from Mika Waltari’s novella Koiranheisipuu (The Three of Dreams, 1953) for soprano and prepared piano. In her score, Saariaho uses repetition and fragmentation in effective manner, as the vocal and piano parts delve ever deeper into the text, word by word, syllable by syllable.

Framed by outer movements, the emotional core of the music is laid out in the central Tunnustus (Confession), giving rise to somewhat direct, yet quite compelling overall dramaturgy. A gripping performance from Komsi and Värri, Preludi – Tunnustus – Postludi makes an apt opening for the album, calling forth the listener’s undivided attention.

Du gick, flög (1982) is a reworking for soprano and piano of one of the songs from the cycle Nej och inte (1979), originally written for female voices a cappella, itself based on diverse musical material initially penned by the composer in the late 1970s. Accompanied by a combination of traditional and extended piano sounds, including knocks, Saariaho’s setting of Gunnar Björling’s Swedish text is rooted in soaring melodic arches, reiterated and transformed into various permutations in the course of the four-minute meditation. A spellbinding affair, the performance by Komsi and Värri is clad in vibrant timbres and admirable detail, resulting in a sonic miniature par excellence.

Saariaho’s Guillaume Apollinaire setting, Il pleut (1986), assumes an almost onomatopoetic guise, as its ever-descending keyboard line unravels in the manner of raindrops, while the solo voice hovers high above the clouds. With striking simplicity, Saariaho summons a musical canvas of almost tactile immediacy, marvellously transformed into sounding reality by Komsi and Värri. The two musical lines are joined into one narrative with reflective sensitivity, to a captivating effect.

In addition to the top-class performances, the Saariaho scores are marvellously caught on disc by the recording team, providing the listener with focused soundscapes and pin-pointed balances. Enclosed in beautiful visual design, the album contains exemplary liner notes by the composer, as well as all song texts in their original languages, alongside English translations. This songbook is certanily worth of your pennies!

Anu Komsi, soprano

Pia Värri, piano

Kaija Saariaho: Preludi – Tunnustus – Postludi (1980) for soprano and prepared piano

Kaija Saariaho: Leino Songs (2000-07) for soprano and piano

Kaija Saariaho: Du gick, flög (1982) for soprano and piano

Kaija Saariaho: Il pleut (1986) for soprano and piano

Kaija Saariaho: Saarikoski Songs (2013-20) for soprano and piano

Recorded at Central Ostrobothnian Conservatory / Centria Concert Hall, Kokkola, Finland on 2-4 January 2021

Coloramaestro Music Company (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: