CD Review


© Aart van der Wal, January 2010

Also published by MusicWeb International



Saariaho: L'Amour de loin.

Daniel Belcher (Jaufré Rudel) (tenor), Ekaterina Lekhina (Clémence) (soprano), Marie-Ange Todorovitch (Pilgrim) (mezzo soprano), Rundfunkchor Berlin,
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
conducted by Kent Nagano.

Recorded in March 2006 at Teldex Studio, Berlin and October 2008 at Bavaria Music Studios, Munich.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 801937.38 • 121' •
(2 SACDs)

The opera l’Amour de loin (Distant love) is by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho who was born in Helsinki in 1952 and has lived in Paris since 1982. It is based on La vida breve (Life is short) by the twelfth-century troubadour and the Prince of Blaye, Jaufré Rudel. Rudel is sick and tired of his superficial and hedonistic life-style and dreams of distant love. He is quite surprised by the arrival of a pilgrim from overseas, from Outre-Mer, at the time a name that was frequently given to the states or regions of the crusaders, like Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli, Jerusalem, and large parts of Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey. The pilgrim claims that he knows of Rudel’s ‘distant love’ and of Clémence, the woman involved. Rudel is so much obsessed by the idea and what the pilgrim tells him that he decides to sail to find his distant beloved. Meanwhile, Clémence has become aware of the Prince’s devotion to her. She lives far away, in Tripoli. Initially she is very suspicious, but gradually becomes more interested in her Prince from a far-away country. Obsessed, she is haunted by her dreams of this unknown lover. Jaufré’s voyage appears to be a crusade against the elements and himself. By the time he arrives in the port of Tripoli he is exhausted and seriously ill. But he traces Clémence and they passionately fall into each other’s arms, shortly before Jaufré dies.

The libretto for Saariaho’s first opera was written by the French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. The high emotional gear of Maalouf’s poetry inspired Saariaho to design an almost dream-like score. It is filled with a most tender and dreamy soundscape that frequently reminds us of Debussy’s impressionistic sound images and melismas. This music is superbly layered and detailed. Saariaho’s great imagination has created the most expressive vocal lines mingled with delicate orchestral colors, incredibly polished harmonies and indolent pedal points. This is all about dreams and Saariaho goes to great length to capture their atmosphere and detail.

One of the composer’s great challenges must have been to avoid the static waves and sculptures of sound that are so often associated with ‘impressionism’. Left to their own devices they produce ‘music without bite’ lacking the capacity to enhance characters and emotions. This is the kind of music that almost endlessly and mercilessly chokes any action yet at the same time making emotions almost painfully tangible. Composers who espouse this approach should be ‘punished’ by compulsory long term close study of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande!

Saariaho avoids these shoals, creating a translucent and crushing masterpiece by ‘translating’ the fascinating libretto into a huge variety of melodic and harmonic modes. These derive from the enchanting and shimmering Middle East and from medieval European chant. They are blended with the electronic extravaganzas of the avant-garde once associated with the experimental workshops that made Darmstadt the foremost bastion of contemporary serial music.

  Kaija Saariaho

And what a great composer she is! She offers us a gorgeous theatre work which lives up to the worldwide praise heaped upon it since its world premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. There it was conducted by the awe-inspiring Kent Nagano and meticulously prepared and ravishingly produced by Peter Sellars. The Holland Festival 2005 production directed by Pierre Audi was far less successful.

Notwithstanding five consecutive acts in just two hours l’Amour de loin is a stage work with long stretches, where energetic action is purposely but clearly missing. This is emphasized by the orchestral scoring which happens to reflect instead of counterpointing the abundantly flowing vocal lines. The ultimate effect of Saariaho’s great and colorful imagination as a composer is so immensely attractive and compelling that hardly anyone will be aware of time and place when attending a dreamlike production of this calibre. The traditional orchestral instruments and their electronic counterparts are so ingeniously and skilfully mixed or contrasted that we just know that this is nothing less than an extremely poignant and resonant work of art that should easily stand the test of time. We are overwhelmed by Saariaho’s originally drafted dissonances and harsh harmonies, but also those rock-steady pedal tones and the open skies of tonal development. Olivier Messiaen’s sound-world is hardly one block away. He must have been Saariaho’s greatest inspiration at times: she attended the stunning performance of his Saint François d’Assise at the 1992 Salzburg Festival and was simply overwhelmed by it.

This brings me to the question whether we should see and hear the performance, instead of only listening to it. I ask this especially because there is a Deutsche Grammophon DVD of that great spellbinding performance conducted by Salonen, a Peter Sellars production, with Dawn Upshaw, Gerald Finley, Monica Groop, and the Finnish National Opera (2005). It happened to be one of the most impressive performances ever given at the FNO’s new opera house.

After having heard Harmonia Mundi’s brand new recording I am not so sure though. The reasons are twofold. First of all, ‘just’ hearing the work might more easily draw you into the finest filigree of this great score undistracted by the stage action. The other reason is that the sound quality of this new release easily supersedes that of the DVD. There is more body, also in the sparse lines, the double bass really goes ‘down under’ and the solo and choral voices are superbly caught. The sound of music is the sound of magic. Just try the final act, the first tableau, to find your way through the transparent beauties laid out for you by this disc.

Kent Nagano gave the work its premiere in Salzburg. He knows how to create and shape the atmospheric anxiety of the theatre. He moulds the phrases impeccably and expresses the kind of instrumental timbre that makes it hard to hear the transition from instrumental to vocal lines. Nagano’s illuminating palette moulds the musical means for each and every character, further emphasized by Saariaho’s own musical differentiation by character: Clémence’s melodies mainly dwell in seconds and thirds, Jaufré in fourths and fifths, the pilgrim’s vocal contributions are dominated by a quickly descending ‘leitmotif’. There is some dazzling string playing, electrifying percussion, and lustrous woodwinds lifting the impressionistic veil.

And the electronics? We have definitely arrived in the 21st century! Here is the composer’s recommended full list: 1. a Mac(intosh) computer, at least a G4/400Mhz with Mac OS 9.0.4 or higher; 2. a multi track audio card, e.g. Korg 1212 I/O (or any other allowing ADAT + SPDIF, compatible with the Mac and usable with an ASIO driver) to play the sound files in multi channels diffusion; 3. an 8 octave MIDI keyboard, e.g. Yamaha KX88 to trigger sound files on the Mac; 4. a simple USB MIDI interface to connect the keyboard to the Mac; 5. a digital mixing desk (preferably a Yamaha O2R with an ADAT card used as digital input from the sound card) used for amplification and diffusion; 6. a version of the Max-MSP software 3.6.2 or higher.

Saariaho may have thought of Dawn Upshaw as her ideal Clémence, but we can be quite happy with Ekaterina Lekhina who matches Upshaw’s superb performance in each and every aspect. Lekhina’s brighter soprano voice carries the required scale of emotions without fail and she portrays her role with the required vocal steadiness and credibility. Daniel Belcher maybe less voluptuously toned than Gerald Finley on the DVD, but he is almost visible when he creates the very best out of these long and sensitive lyric textures in the score. Even more so, he also reveals the morbid nature of his role to the very limit without falling into the pitfall of self-indulgent anachronisms. Todorovitch, with his very strong stage presence, is better able to project the Pilgrim’s ambiguous role, unquestionably stepping out of the perfunctory role of mediator between Jaufré and Clémence. The recording team has correctly captured the choir from one side of the stage, with a crystal clear focus on their plaintive and chatty involvement.

I would not want to be without both: the DVD and this latest SACD release by Harmonia Mundi. The SACD is an outright winner in terms of sheer purity and beauty of sound and detailing. No question about it: this is a great production!