Photo by Heikki Tuuli
A friendly bootlegger has snuck me a tape, from last summer’s Salzburg Festival, of L’amour de Loin, strengthening my conviction that its composer, Kaija Saariaho, belongs on the short list of the foremost creative artists of our time. She is no stranger here; she has recently been on the faculty at UC San Diego, and Esa-Pekka Salonen has conducted and recorded several of her works. One of these, the ravishing orchestral fantasy Du Cristal . . ., is even scheduled for a repeat performance here next season. A second hearing of important new music is an admirable but depressingly rare occurrence.
Like Salonen and quite a few others, Saariaho belongs to a remarkable generation now in its 40s, born in Finland and now living somewhere else, who represent the harvest of that country’s enlightened support of music education. Widespread as they are, these members of the Sibelius Academy diaspora don’t seem to share many stylistic earmarks. There is a plangence in Saariaho’s recent music, a way she has of setting ecstatic solo voices against a rich, lush background that doesn’t connect easily to the braininess of Salonen’s music or the defiant anarchy of Magnus Lindberg. L’amour de Loin, which is on the 2002 agenda at the Santa Fe Opera, tells of intense but unfulfilled love in a medieval setting; its music is mostly streaks of dark gold against a purple unimaginably rich; I don’t know of any recent music more purely beautiful.
Two recent discs of Saariaho’s music do, however, suggest the strange and disturbing power of that opera. On Ondine there is From the Grammar of Dreams; the disc includes the song cycle by that name — five poems of Sylvia Plath — and a rich gar- land of settings of Apollinaire, Eluard and Shakespeare. There is magical word painting here, with vocal lines interweaving with one another and with the instruments of Helsinki’s lively ensemble called Avanti! (founded in 1983 by Salonen and others, and still going strong). Anu Komsi is the principal singer, her voice full of the strange glints and color washes that the music demands.
Even more remarkable are the three big works on a new Sony collection recorded under Salonen’s direction in England and Finland, and the most remarkable of all is Château de l’Âme, which Betty Freeman commissioned for Dawn Upshaw at the 1996 Salzburg Festival. The work runs 22 minutes: a song cycle on Hindu Vedic and ancient Egyptian texts, with the voice of Upshaw floating like some mysterious, multicolored, nameless creature above a small chorus of women’s voices and Salonen’s orchestra. As with her opera (in which Upshaw also sang the lead), Saariaho’s music moves across the vision in dazzling, smoky, glistening clouds in which sound and sight meld as an entity above them both — at every moment breath-haltingly radiant. Also on this indispensable disc are extended works by Saariaho for violin (Gidon Kremer) and cello (Anssi Karttunen); from the composer of such music, I look out upon horizons without limits.
I am unforgivably late in getting around to another recent cherishable disc, but now, while we’re on the subject of indescribable beauty, is the time to bring it up. The disc, Rhymes With Silver, is New Albion’s collection of music by Lou Harrison; the music, under that title, was commissioned by Mark Morris, whose group danced to it in 1997. Yo-Yo Ma was the cellist then; Joan Jeanrenaud, formerly with Kronos and now on her own, is the more-than-satisfactory replacement, with violinist David Abel, violist Benjamin Simon, pianist Julie Steinberg and percussionist William Winant, Bay Area stalwarts all. The appeal here is immediate and ingratiating; it gives off the sense I always think I detect in the best of Lou Harrison’s work, that there is nothing more joy-giving in all the world than creating music. You get trapped, in these small dances and quirky flights of fancy, into mistaking their affected simplicity for something less than profound. It isn’t; it is the whole of Lou in full panoply here. His 12 small pieces with darling names like “chromatic rhapsody” and “romantic waltz,” like the more grandiose rhetoric of Kaija Saariaho’s music, grab hold and won’t let go.
On ECM there is Ceremony, another collection of deception and delight. Barry Guy is the composer and double bassist, and Maya Homburger plays the baroque violin; that’s all there is. The music starts off with a Praeludium by the 17th-century composer Heinrich Biber, who gets taken a little too seriously nowadays because of his naive attempts to inflict programs onto his music. This time, however, the spooky invocation leads quite properly to Guy’s own music, which, once again, makes its strong points by affecting an air of disembodied pointlessness. This is music you want to listen to by letting it fill the room, and then standing somewhere just outside. Haunting, hypnotic . . . this is music, gorgeously played by the way, that seems to belong to many centuries at once.
I grew up with the one available recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Now there are over two dozen, but the new DG recording stands apart. Pierre Boulez, whose recent drift toward a warmer kind of romanticism than had been his wont seems beyond rational explanation (or the need to explain), draws from his unlikely partnership with the Vienna Philharmonic a performance miraculous in its range of both color and passion. Here is the orchestra put on Earth to play this music; that much is a given. That Boulez now seems the man of his generation put on Earth to conduct it — to plumb its every depth of passion, sorrow and loneliness — may be more surprising, but it’s what I hear in this superlative disc. His soloists are Violetta Urmana and Michael Schade, and that too is remarkable. Both are singers light of voice and phrasing, more of Mozart’s century than the late 19th. Hearing them in perfect balance against Mahler’s daunting orchestra, thanks I’m sure to somebody’s knowing touch at the volume controls, endows the music with a range of emotion, but also of intimacy, that I can’t remember ever encountering, live or on disc. (Oh yes, once, at Kathleen Ferrier’s New York debut with Bruno Walter and the Philharmonic.) Perhaps you already own dozens of Das Lieds; believe me, you need this one as well.