The first UK performance of Kaija Saariaho‘s 2008 work Laterna magica took place at tonight’s Prom concert in decidedly sumptuous company, Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra & Four Last Songs on one side, Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony on the other. It was a superbly-judged juxtaposition; while Saariaho’s music occupies places hard to define, nonetheless there’s often a kind of restrained opulence (i hope that’s not too strong a word) as well, lending her work a sensibility that one could almost describe as ‘Romantic’.
Yet Saariaho’s notions of material, idea, foreground, focus & the like are sharply contrasting not just to Strauss & Sibelius, but to the majority of music one hears today (particularly in England). The title, Laterna magica (Magic lantern), comes from the autobiography of film director Ingmar Bergman, & it’s concepts associated with the moving image (or, rather the illusion of it) that form the origin of Saariaho’s inspiration. Particularly instructive is a passage from Bergman’s book that describes the different kinds of light that his favourite photographer could capture:
Gentle, dangerous, dream-like, lively, dead, clear, hazy, hot, strong, naked, sudden, dark, spring-like, penetrating, pressing, direct, oblique, sensuous, overpowering, restricting, poisonous, pacifying, bright light. Light.
That description perfectly encapsulates the soundworld Saariaho creates in Laterna magica. In some ways, both the concept & execution bring Unsuk Chin’s work Rocanā to mind (which also explores the play of light), but what Saariaho has achieved is even more subtle & effective (& realistic?) than Chin. It’s a piece almost impossible to describe, & even trying to decide whether it flows, drifts, evolves or shifts is hard to say with confidence. What’s apparent at every moment is just how fleeting that moment is; a surge hovers, giving way immediately to a chord formed from individually placed notes, then a thump & a hectic response, shimmering marimba & woodwind breaths, a brass chord, melodic shapes… & so it goes on, through a constant stream of invention that’s endlessly rethinking itself & moving on. It’s not arbitrary, though, & themes—for want of a better word—can be heard, one of the most striking being fanfare-like gestures in the upper brass. Yet even here, when it becomes more demonstrative (as it does numerous times), Saariaho finds a way to avoid direct statement; there’s the intention of a melody, the half-heard firmament of a pulse, sounding from the middle-distance, rising & falling within the larger instrumental mass. The way Laterna magica keeps itself out of reach—tangible yet ephemeral—may prove frustrating for some, but it’s an extraordinary wielding of orchestral energy, & quite apart from how fascinating it is to hear one idea emerge from (or in spite of) its neighbour, Saariaho’s music is uncommonly beautiful.
Premièred almost three years ago by the Berlin Philharmonic, it was finally brought to Britain tonight by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena, in a dazzlingly transparent performance. Saariaho’s programme note can be read in full here, & an interview with her about the piece can be seen here.
Kaija Saariaho – Laterna magica (UK Première)
Kaija Saariaho – Laterna magica
- Loved it! (38%, 16 Votes)
- Liked it (29%, 12 Votes)
- Meh (19%, 8 Votes)
- Disliked it (12%, 5 Votes)
- Hated it! (2%, 1 Votes)
Total Voters: 42