Phenomenal world premiere for Kaija Saariaho’s Saarikoski Songs with Anu Komsi and Pia Värri

Composer Kaija Saariaho, soprano Anu Komsi and pianist Pia Värri presenting Ville Tietäväinen’s original cover art for their new album Sumun läpi at the world premiere of Saarikoski Songs (2013-20) at the Helsinki Music Centre foyer. © Jari Kallio

On Tuesday afternoon, the Helsinki Music Centre was awash with live music again, following ten long months of lockdown silence. Coinciding with the release of their new album, Sumun läpi, soprano Anu Komsi and pianist Pia Värri had teamed up for the first complete live outing for Kaija Saariaho’s new song cycle, Saarikoski Songs (2013-20), performed at the Music Centre foyer, with the composer and a plentiful of enthusiastic music lovers present.

The riveting five-song cycle is derived from the poetry of Pentti Saarikoski, a key figure in the Finnish literary scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Commissioned by Komsi, the cycle was begun in 2013, with a setting of the poem Luonnon kasvot (The Face of nature), originally conceived as a standalone piece. However, as years went by, Saariaho found further inspiration from Saarikoski’s 1973 collection Alue (The District), giving rise to a fully-fledged cycle, completed during the first pandemic lockdown in April 2020.

According to Saariaho, Saarikoski’s collection has played an important role for her ever since it was first published. However, it took four decades before the first musical ideas, evoked by the poetry, began to take shape in the composer’s mind.

”The poems have immense inherent musicality within them, so they don’t really need to be set to music. However, over they years, at certain moments, some of the poems began to resonate in me, eventually leading to these settings. They are all very personal in that respect, relating to some specific moments in my life”, the composer told to the Music Centre audience.

Written for Komsi, the songs contain many links to Saariaho’s earlier music, but they open up many new doors as well. The composer herself points out their bravura aspects, inspired by the dedicatee’s artistry and virtuosic craft. Some of the vocal writing is fascinatingly instrumental, especially in the vocalise sections. In addition, many of the textures are interchangeable between the solo voice and the keyboard, yielding to a series of admirably refined sonic continuum.

”Writing for the piano has always been somewhat challenging for me, since I am drawn to all these nuanced details within harmony and colour, which can be achieved quite naturally in vocal writing, but not that easily with the keyboard. My use of pedal is rooted in the desire to cross the boundaries within the instrument”, Saariaho contemplated her relationship with the piano.

The cycle is set forth with a luminously evocative, thirteen-bar vocalise introduction, marked leggiero, espressivo. Out of the opening meditation, the poem Luonnon kasvot gradually emerges. An epitaph to the nature past, the vocal line examines the text with sensuous reflection, accompanied by contemplative piano textures, played from the keyboard and strings alike. In the closing section, words evaporate into sublime vocalise, consisting of repeated, elusive fragments, giving rise to enthralling sonic theatre.

The second song, Jokaisella on tämänsä (Everyone will have their own this) assumes more straightforwardly dramatic guise. The heated vocal part and the vibrant piano lines both convey the poignant text with biting acuteness. A reflective counterpart ensues, in the guise of the third song, Kaikki tämä (All of this). Here, Saariaho’s writing comes off as its most meditative, giving rise to the quasi-static core of the cycle. Both written in 2017, the two interrelated songs form a wonderful pair.

The two last songs were composed in 2020, in the midst of the Finnish pandemic realities, echoing the uncertainty of the first Covid months, juxtaposing a vast array of emotions. Marked intenso, selvaggio, Minussa lintu ja käärme (In me the bird and the snake) opens with a prominent keyboard tremolo, summoning vocal lines of compelling vehemence and grit, reflecting the mental landscape of the lockdown era with haunting psychological accuracy.

To complete the cycle’s near-symmetry, the final song, Sumun läpi (Through the mist), recalls some of the moods and textures of the opening. The music is set forth with an extended keyboard introduction, paving the way for the mesmerizing vocal part. In terms of mood and texture, Sumun läpi alters between static cloudscapes and subtly kinetic blusters, as if gazing towards some pale-lighted, elusive horizon. In the elaborate piano part, fleeting allusions to the Brahmsian realm may be heard, to a tantalizing effect. Rounding of with a vocalise and a brief keyboard postlude, the music fades into multi-faceted silence.

Keeping up with the deep spiritual impact of their album account, the world premiere live performance by Komsi and Värri was simply phenomenal. The five songs were clad in astonishing vocal and pianistic virtuosity and lyrical connectivity, resulting in a profoundly unique musical journey. At the Music Centre foyer, Saariaho’s settings came off with admirable ingeniousness, providing an enthralling sonic reflection of our shared experience of time and space.

Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhausorchester, the orchestral version of Saarikoski Songs will be given in Boston in February 2022, with Komsi as soloist and Music Director Andris Nelsons on the podium. In both guises, the cycle will likely become an often-performed affair, thanks to the detailed finesse and inspired connectivity of Saariaho’s art of song.

Anu Komsi, soprano

Pia Värri, piano

Kaija Saariaho: Saarikoski Songs (2013-2020) for soprano and piano

Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland

Tuesday 7 September 2021, 5 pm

© Jari Kallio

Phenomenal world premiere for Kaija Saariaho’s Saarikoski Songs with Anu Komsi and Pia Värri