Saariaho: Graal théâtre; Solar; Lichtbogen

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Ondine
WORKS: Graal théâtre; Solar; Lichtbogen
PERFORMER: John Storgårds (violin); Avanti! CO/Hannu Lintu
The ordering of the works on this disc makes sense: the violin concerto Graal théâtre (recorded here in the revised version with chamber ensemble) is both the most impressive and the most approachable of the three pieces. If you’re new to the music of this strikingly distinctive Finnish composer, that’s the right place to start. But beginning at the end and working backwards is instructive too – in fact it’s rather like witnessing a personality developing on fast-forward. Lichtbogen (Light-curve, 1986) seems at first to reveal Saariaho as an austere young modernist, though there’s an unusual vitality in the ideas, and there’s a hint of an emerging Romanticism. Once you know that the music was inspired by the Northern Lights, it’s hard to get their weird flickering and electric crackling out of your head – as nature-depiction it’s not so very far from Sibelius in spirit. In Solar, written seven years later, the expression has intensified, and there’s an urgency to the writing that gives it compelling momentum. Even so, the gain in confidence, expressive edge and range of character in Graal théâtre is striking. Violinist John Storgårds is a strong, incisive soloist here, and in this chamber version the music paradoxically feels more full-on than in the orchestral original as recorded by Gidon Kremer and Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sony. But in that earlier version of the music, the harshness is balanced by sensuous warmth and more drama of colours – at least it is in Kremer’s and Salonen’s hands. That’s the reading I’d recommend first, though this disc has enough to offer to make it worth having both. Stephen Johnson