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LABELS: Ondine
WORKS: Quatre instants; Terra Memoria for string orchestra; Emilie Suite
PERFORMER: Karen Vourc’h (soprano); Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/ Marko Letonja


As an admirer of Kaija Saariaho, I’d been saddened to be disappointed by her monodrama Emilie, at its staged premiere in Lyon in 2010. Here, the distillation of the work into a 25-minute concert suite, for ears alone, makes for a new and excitingly close focus both on the thoughts and feelings of its protagonist, the Marquise Emilie de Chatelet, scientist and mistress of Voltaire – and on the music’s unique and distinctive landscape, its coppery-harpsichord-tinted writing – now more economically written for small orchestra. The suite consists of just three songs and two orchestral interludes.

The French soprano Karen Vourc’h (the piece was originally written for Karita Mattila) is an eloquent advocate of the heightened arioso, flexing into and out of speech, which characterises the eerie vortex of ‘Presentiment’, the pulsing and piercing nerve pain of ‘Principia’ (Emilie was a no less anguished lover of Newton’s work, which she is translating…), and ‘Contre l’oubli’, with its dark terror of oblivion.

This suite is nicely balanced by a fine performance by Vourc’h and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg of Saariaho’s 2002 sea-mist of a song-cycle, Quatre instants (also with text by Amin Maalouf); and by the mesmerising string-orchestral version of the 2009 Terra Memoria (originally for string quartet). Here the Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja controls Saariaho’s single arc of quizzical and querulous transformations into a haunting meditation on memory itself.


Hilary Finch