CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 1 JUNE 2006
Kaija Saariaho: Quatre Instants. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504 ("Prague"). Maurice Ravel: Une barque sur l'océan. Claude Debussy: La Mer.
Those of you with a ten-year-old at home might know the joke: Where do fish go for their vacation? The answer, of course, is Finland. And so perhaps one shouldn't be surprised when composer Kaija Saariaho, who hails from that land of 180,000 lakes, turns her attention to matters aquatic. Her first opera L'Amour de Loin recounts the tale of a love affair conducted long-distance across the Mediterranean, and in Peter Sellars' realization the stage itself is an ankle-deep pool of water.
Nautical metaphors also open Saariaho's song cycle Quatre Instants, based, like L'Amour de Loin, on texts by Amin Maalouf and performed at this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts by dedicatee Karita Mattila. Dawn Upshaw is the singer most often associated with Saariaho's work; her recording of the composer's Château de l'âme is particularly spellbinding. But the denser voice of Mattila is the perfect vessel for navigating Quatre Instants' turbulent emotional waters.
Mattila brings extraordinary dramatic conviction to Saariaho's construction. Her rendition of "Douleur," the second of the four songs, was so harrowing, so psychologically incisive that this listener would have welcomed, say, a ten-minute silence to absorb the music's impact before moving on to the component of the sequence. And when, in the piece that opens the cycle, Mattila sings of a lover "sur l'autre rive"—"on the other shore"—the melody seems positively soaked with desire. This is music at once ravishing and terrifying, and Mattila's realization of it is nothing short of magical: a perfect match of work and performer.
Quatre Instants is joined on the program by two other sea-related pieces: Ravel's Une barque sur l'océan and Debussy's La mer. Music Director Franz Welser-Möst's versions of these evocative French classics are well-designed, intelligently paced, and entirely effective. Thursday's performances had an impressive transparency of texture. Details of the pieces' intricate orchestral engineering were vividly realized without sacrificing large scale form or visceral impact.
Welser-Möst's reading of Mozart's "Prague" symphony—number 38—seemed, by contrast, too weighty for its own good, particularly in the sodden-sounding climactic passages of the finale. And at a couple of points in the first movement—toward the end of the slow introduction and during the bars in the exposition when the second theme is repeated in the minor—a bit more buoyancy would have been welcome.
What's more—unless we were meant to think of Prague's river, the Vltava—the Mozart symphony seemed out of place in this aquatic themed program, so richly evocative of the sea's emotional and physical perils. Why, the only things missing were sea monsters. And we know, again thanks to one of those old elementary school jokes, what they most like to eat: fish and ships.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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