Saariaho’s luminous song cycle, BSO program, reflect larger world events

February 25, 2022 at 11:41 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Kaija Saariaho’s Saarikoski Songs was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons Thursday night.

Given the parlous state of global affairs, one could be excused for inevitably pondering the extra-musical context of the program the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons presented on Thursday night at Symphony Hall.

True, there are perils in dwelling too much on such subtext when considering abstract music, especially that by Arvo Pärt, Dmitri Shostakovich, Kaija Saariaho, and Igor Stravinsky. Notes aren’t words (as the latter composer liked to remind) and any meanings we apply to them will, necessarily, be subjective.

Still, for any wondering about the relationship between high art and lived life, Thursday’s concert cut pretty close to the bone: most of its offerings seemed to jibe with current events, near and far, to an uncomfortable degree.

The most substantial of those was Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Begun in 1947 and completed the following year, the concerto’s composition was interrupted by the release of the infamous Zhdanov Doctrine, which accused Shostakovich (among others) of betraying the values of Social Realism. In response to this sanction, the composer wrote no more symphonies or concerti during the dictator’s lifetime; this concerto wasn’t heard until 1955.

Given the music’s searching character and searing power, that seems, in hindsight, a wise choice. Melodic and virtuosic though the four movements are, it’s no easygoing crowd-pleaser.

On Thursday, Baiba Skride was the soloist. The Latvian violinist is no stranger to Symphony Hall or this piece: she made her debut here with it in 2013.

This time, Skride’s account of the first movement was fundamentally a study in fragility, its melodic line spun out with silken focus. She brought similar purity to the Passacaglia, whose dynamic shape and shadings of intensity were engrossing. More forceful playing emerged in the Scherzo, with its jaunty refrains and snapping mottos, as well as during the bold, slashing cadenza and in the finale’s driving, edgy runs.

Still, for all the know-how of Skride’s interpretation, there was an unsettled quality to it. Part of the reason was Nelsons’ accompaniment. His tempos in the first and third movements were too broad; orchestral playing in the Nocturne, especially, lacked tension. Also, the Scherzo’s brusque woodwind phrases were a shade tentative.

Yet Skride didn’t always seem to lock in with the orchestra, intonation-wise. Nor did she finesse the solo part’s big moments. Whether by accident or design, though, these apparent imperfections ultimately emphasized the tenacious spirit of the music at hand.

While the Shostakovich concerto probed psychological terrors from the near past, the world premiere of the orchestral version of Saariaho’s Saarikoski Songs hailed decisively from the present. 

Setting five texts from Pentti Saarikoski’s 1973 collection, “The District,” they meditate, variously, on nature and decay; the “feeling” of the last two, in the composer’s words, corresponds directly to the “corona-spring of 2020.”

In these gripping, aphoristic movements, Saariaho’s love of sonic possibilities and the sound of words comes full circle. Her orchestral writing—from the first song’s bent notes to the second’s swirling, heterophonic textures and the fifth’s pungent harmonies—never fails to catch the ear. Not a note, extended technique, or phrase, it seems, is wasted.

Her vocal writing is likewise flawless. Composed for the extraordinary soprano Anu Komsi, the Songs are at once a tour-de-force of coloratura technique and a masterclass in text-setting.

Komsi was Thursday’s soloist. Making her BSO debut, she dazzled, singing with astonishing command of her instrument in every register. Indeed, the soprano’s ability to blend with the orchestra was captivating: sometimes her voice evoked a piccolo, sometimes a trumpet or a violin. Throughout, too, Komsi’s enunciation of the Songs’ Finnish texts—whether the angular lines of “Everyone will have their own this,” the crystalline stasis of “All of this,” or over the pulsing ostinatos of “The bird and the snake”—was superb.

Nelsons drew playing from the BSO of gripping energy and color, particularly during the hypnotic central song (“All of this”) and the otherworldly, concluding “Through the mist.”

Conductor and orchestra were likewise in their element in the 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.

The former, well-directed and brightly lit, packed charm and rhythmic wallop in equal measure. Meanwhile, Pärt’s 1977 memorial unfolded with stately majesty, its lament, on Thursday, seeming to speak for so much more than the premature death of one man.

The program repeats 8 p.m. Friday (when the Saariaho will be  omitted), Saturday, and Tuesday.

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