SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

KAIJA SAARIAHO: La Passion de Simeon – Dawn Upshaw, sop./ Tapiola Chamber Choir/ Finnish Radio Sym. Orch./ Esa-Pekka Salonen – Ondine

Is this a great piece of music? Probably so, but a lot of preparation is required.

Published on April 26, 2013

KAIJA SAARIAHO: La Passion de Simeon – Dawn Upshaw, soprano/ Tapiola Chamber Choir/ Finnish Radio Sym. Orch./ Esa-Pekka Salonen – Ondine multichannel SACD ODE 1217-5, 66:32 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

There are few more complex individuals for philosophical and religious students of twentieth century life than Simone Weil (1909-43). Born in Paris to generally affluent parents, she early on identified with the disenfranchised and sought to improve their lot. When she could not directly do this she turned in on herself with an asceticism and extreme self-denial that eventually led to physical conditions not capable of sustaining her life. Any number of leftist causes was embraced by her, but she was far from an ivory tower philosopher, going to great lengths in order to understand those whom she was defending, including taking jobs in assembly lines, and declaring herself a Marxist, pacifist, and trade unionist. Highly intelligent and educated, she taught for many years in universities interrupting this activity sporadically to embrace specific near to the heart causes. Her writings, unknown during her life, were published posthumously and became quite influential, Pope Paul the VI declaring her one of his three biggest influences, Albert Camus considering her “the only great spirit of our times”, while her “boss” during WWII, Charles de Gaulle, said she was simply a “fool”.

Unlike many of the intellectual left however, she embraced a fervent belief in God, was highly mystical if unorthodox in her theology, and most scholars based on the available evidence say she did indeed accept baptism into the Roman Catholic Church before her death, having attended mass daily when she was living in Harlem near the end of her life. Her works are publicaly not very popular now, though she retains a considerable foothold among academia.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has long had a passion for the works of Weil, so much so that she has turned her passion into a passion, perhaps a too-obvious parallel to Jesus Christ in Catholic symbolism with the form of the piece like the stations of the cross (15 vignettes or “stations” here, each selection of Weil’s texts narrated by a soprano and commented on Greek-chorus like by the choir) which form a contiguous whole. The texts are all in Weil’s native French, and sound as if they are intricately wedded to the music, Saariaho’s highly expressive and borderline tonal atonality evoking sometimes syllabic meaning from the complex words. And this is one of the problems, from at least a non-French speaker like me; you need to be able to understand the text in order to fully understand the music, as odd as this may sound. Many times this is not the case, but here I fear it is essential. This is not to say that the composer’s music lacks interest—far from it, as she is one of the top guns in the composing world today—but it could be so much more. How to get around this problem aside from multiple recordings in multiple languages, I am not sure, but the issue remains. If you get this disc be prepared to give a lot of attention to the included translation if you do not speak French.

This is meat and potatoes for Dawn Upshaw, who has made a career performing new pieces like this, and there is no disappointment here at all. Salonen is also a first choice for a work like this, and performances are simply superb. The SACD sound gives the work all it could ask for, and there are some explosive moments to be had which shine forth in Saariaho’s considerable sonic splendor. Worth a purchase, but know what you are getting into; this is, I suspect an important piece of music.

—Steven Ritter




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