Friday, 16 December 2016

Saariaho True Fire Gerald Finley Sakari Oramo BBC SO

Kaija Saariaho's True Fire, with Gerald Finley at the Barbican London, with the BBC SO with Sakari Oramo conducting.  Saariaho has produced masterpieces, like Orion (2002) a breathtakingly beautiful evocation of starlight and mystery, but occasionally has lapses like Adriana Mater. But her music is too distinctive to dismiss.  In True Fire  she breaks into new territory.  The characteristic washes of multi-tonal, multi-coloured oscillation remain, but darker hues prevail. intensifying the elusive danger that lurks within Saariaho's music, which is far too often overlooked.. True Fire has a dark soul, and is all the better for it.

Saariaho's regular muse is Karita Mattila, for whom she wrote Mirages, premiered in 2008 also at the Barbican, London.  True Fire is a companion pieces to some extent, being very different on many levels, Mirage making the most of Mattila's grand dramatic intensity, while True Fire  is more suited to Finley's baritonal hues.  He's been a Saariaho regular too, for many years. singing Jaufré Rudel in L'amour de loin when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted it in Helsinki more than ten years ago, the performance immortalized on DVD.  (Please read my review of the Met version ).  True Fire works as an exploration of Finley's timbre : colours and shadings again, and much variety in the setting.

This time the music is structured and channelled in a purposeful direction. Three "propositions", based on Ralph Waldo Emerson frame sections based on Seamus Heaney, a Native American lullaby and a text by the poet Mahmoud Darwish.  Introduced by the rumbling first "proposition" the section "River" flows strongly.   Words like "Thirst", "Night" and "River" are repeated in circular motion, "flowing, flowing". Strong currents in the orchestra, lit by fractured cells of sound which en masse sparkle with  light.  Gradually the flow subsides and Finley's voice rises to the top of his register, gradually fading.   The second proposition is particularly lush - bell-like sonorities, bright percussion, swathes of strings: "In silence" , Finley intones, barely above a growl.  Strange rocking rhythms in the Lullaby, a vigorous introduction moments of sparkling light. "In the west a dark flower blossoms, and now lightning flashes"  Again, circular forms . "Oh, oh, oh, my little one", repeating  like a set of mini-variations, the rocking rhythms taken up again in the orchestra -  hushed cymbals and gongs   In contrast "Farewell" began with hollow but carefully paced intonation  lit by short passages of orchestral complexity. "Don't wait for anyone, in the crowd", sang Finley with understated ferocity, consonants tightly clipped, the word "Narcissus" sharply sinister.  The last "proposition" is an extended diminuendo, voice and orchestra slowly proceeding towards an ending which glows, muted but forceful. What is the "true fire" in the text ? All may be fading around it but something remains firm and pure.

Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra at very short notice, receiving the score for the first time on Tuesday for Thursday evening's concert.  Fortunately he knows Saariaho's idiom well, and his rapport with the BBC SO is instinctive and strong. They've done a lot of Saariaho too, over the years. They know that this music works best when it flows naturally, like an organic form, without being pushed and pulled.  On the basis of this performance, I think True Fire is a keeper. It fits Finley like a glove, so he'll be able to sing it well for years to come, after which other baritones can enjoy its riches.   Before True Fire, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, and afterwards, Prokofiev Symphony no 5. well played but the real news is Saariaho. 

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