The music of Finland has always boasted a distinct and even magical quality—a sound carried through the works of Sibelius, Rautavaara, Salonen, Sallinen and Lindberg, among others.
Finlandia also permeates the viscerally beautiful music of Kaija Saariaho, in a slightly different manner. A Sibelius-Academy–trained Helsinkian, Saariaho has spent the last 30 years living in Paris. The sounds of her forebears still live on in Saariaho’s works, but there is also an unmistakable Gallic quality that has wandered in as well. Smoky philosophies and otherworldly images tread a precarious line of hisses and groans, white-knuckle pianissimos and guttural fortes.
As Saariaho prepares for her tenure in Carnegie Hall’s 2011-12 composer’s chair (the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra gives the world premiere of her Emilie Suite this week), we’ll inevitably be hearing an extra-generous dose of her works this year. Finnish label Ondine has kicked off the festivities with a trio of world premiere recordings that make the newest Saariaho disc a must for first-timers and longtime fans. Compatriot clarinettist Kari Krikku dives head first into Saariaho’s daunting clarinet concerto, D’om Le Vrai Sens, inspired by France’s medieval tapestries depicting the Lady and the Unicorn.
The stakes are raised with a 24-minute orchestral orgy, Laterna Magica, which cracks open at different junctures to let in varying strokes of light. Fearless soprano Anu Komsi, seen at New York City Opera earlier this year in John Zorn’s Le machine de l’être, rounds out the album with Leino Songs, a quartet of vocal works that seem to come and go with an unsettling mist. Everything may not be quite all right in Saariaho’s world, but identity and ideology collisions such as these nevertheless make for delicious aural consumption.