Saturday, 24 January 2009

Kaija Saariaho, Salle de Olivier Messiaen, Maison de Radio France

I have often wondered whether instrumentalists respond to the instruction, in certain modern scores, to emit sudden vocalisations, with dread or delight. In tonight's performance, by seven soloists from the French National Orchestra, these mouth noises, somewhere between those of a Clanger and a Flower Pot Man, come from the flautist, Philippe Pierlot. Amid a trickle of marimba and a thresh of almost Bernard Hermann-esque stabs from the string players, he whoops and parps away in the second of three Saariaho pieces this evening, entitled Terrestre. Monsieur Pierlot is of course far too deadpan for us to ascertain his relative enjoyment (or otherwise of this brief opportunity to exercise his larynx on stage.

Born in Helsinki, alumnus of both IRCAM and Darmstadt (where she studied under Brian Ferneyhough), Saariaho is a composer steeped in the modern French school, but with a distinctly Finnish icy severity that recalls, at times, Jean Sibelius. Sandwiched, in tonight's programme, between the summery jauntiness of Albert Roussel's Sérénades and the soupy orientalism of Debussy's Préludes (transcribed form the piano for strings, harp and flute by Anthony Girard), Saariaho's New Gates is immediately arresting in its cold, forbidding intensity. Concerned with that favourite old IRCAM trope, the gradual transformation of musical timbres, it even starts with a genuine Schoenbergian Klangfarbenmelodie, moving gently from the first rasped high cello note, to the same note played on a flute, at first more breathe than note, gradually introducing more and more tone as it takes over from the cello, and, finally, a flurry of harp glissandi in the same register.