KAIJA SAARIAHO: L’Amour de loin – Daniel Belcher (Jaufre Rudel)/ Ekaterina Lekhina (Clemence)/ Marie-Ange Todorvitvh (Le Pelerin)/ Berlin Radio Choir/ German Symphony Orchestra Berlin/ Kent Nagano – Harmonia mundi (2 discs)

by | Feb 17, 2010 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

KAIJA SAARIAHO: L’Amour de loin (complete opera) – Daniel Belcher (Jaufre Rudel)/ Ekaterina Lekhina (Clemence)/ Marie-Ange Todorvitvh (Le Pelerin)/ Berlin Radio Choir/ German Symphony Orchestra Berlin/ Kent Nagano – Harmonia mundi 801937.38 Multichannel SACD (2 discs), 2:01:00 *****:

This is one beautiful album. I have been very reticent about Kaija Saariaho’s work, considering the Helsinki native’s compositions are often acerbic and of the modern school that continues to indulge itself with sound collages at the expense of real music that people can relate to. But here she throws me off completely. Take Debussy on steroids and mix it with a large dose of the delicacy and scoring sensibilities of Takemitsu coupled with the power of a Wagnerian orchestra and you get some idea of what this is all about.

Saariaho’s vocal lines are gorgeously modal, suited perfectly to the rather wordy libretto and making the proliferation of texts tuneful and highly declamatory, albeit also highly lyrical. This isn’t Puccini—you will not find those kinds of melodies—but what you do get are melodies that seem to emerge from the overwhelming orchestral textures as the phoenix rising from the ashes, the two actually one while the orchestra gives birth to the melodies in a very integrated manner. The orchestra surrounds the vocal lines like a giant wave caressing a surfer, and the emotional aspects of this music all occur in the orchestra, which sets the tone in each scene in a way Wagner would certainly have approved.

Briefly the story of the five scenes from Love from Afar is this: the protagonist Jaufré, having tired of the rich pleasures of his life, seeks to find true love from afar. He gets laughed at, but a pilgrim who appears on the scene says that such a love does exist, as he has seen her in faraway Tripoli, Lebanon. The pilgrim returns to Lebanon and tells Clémence that there is someone in France who is writing songs of love to her. Though initially offended by this idea, Clémence begins to dream of him and romanticize the situation. Ultimately Jaufré decides to sail to his faraway love and during the journey begins to have second thoughts, getting so worked up that he becomes deathly ill, and finally upon reaching Tripoli dies in his beloved’s arms, who then blames herself for his death.

The depth and richness of the libretto adds much to my admittedly skeletal outline. This opera would fall flat without superb singing, and we get that here in droves. Ekaterina Lekhina is a real discovery for me, as solid a voice as I have heard recently, with a fabulous upper register and wonderfully smooth tone. American Daniel Belcher gives a fine reading of Jaufré, able to negotiate Saariaho’s continuously demanding legato lines with rare adroitness. My only question is the pilgrim of Marie-Ange Todorvitvh, who at first seems a little raspy, but later settles into the role. Nagano, a conductor who often bores me, is really in his element here, as are his Berliners.

This opera was first started in 1999, and is Saariaho’s first attempt in the genre. It has certainly opened up my eyes and I will give her music a second glance in the future if the writing is of this quality. Harmonia mundi returns to SACD here, offering Saariaho’s haunting story in pristine sonics along with a full libretto with translation into English (the opera is in French). Definitely one of the highlights of the young year, and not to be missed.

— Steven Ritter  

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