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‘Trans’ by Kaija Saariaho

Truth be told, I’ve always been more of a symphony man than a concerto man. That’s because I often find the concerto’s traditional element of conspicuous virtuosity – the need to parade what a master soloist can do – a little vulgar and off-putting.

But this is no concern with Trans, a harp concerto featured on a new disc of orchestral music by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Her compatriot Hannu Lintu conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, while harpist Xavier de Maistre takes the solo part that was composed for him in 2015.

It’s not that his role is in any way simple, of course, but as Saariaho is quoted in the liner notes: ‘for me, a concerto is less about traditional virtuoso technique than about drilling deep into the soul of the instrument’. And the result is about as subtle a concerto as you’re likely to hear.

Of course, harps are rarely put on a pedestal in this way, and for good reason – the instrument is quiet, and difficult to bring out over a full orchestra. But Saariaho makes this limitation into a feature, by putting it into dialogue with smaller instrumental groups (a crossing-over alluded to in the title) but which rarely reaches anything like a loud volume.

With Saariaho’s feeling for atmospheric scoring, Trans becomes a kind of antithesis of the extrovert concerto – it is quiet, reflective, mysterious. I found it an immediately fascinating listen. Harp and orchestra alike spend a lot of time exploring short repeating motifs and intervals, like bubbles up rising to the surface of a lake – if that’s not too much of a Finnish cliché.  

The titles (in French, as is often to be the case with her music) spell out poetic approaches to instrument – Fugitif, Vanité, Messager. The middle of these, referring to the ‘Vanitas’ genre of still life painting, certainly does justice to her careful, painterly touch with the orchestra. 

A set of six songs called True Fire leads the album, setting some remarkably eclectic texts and sung here by the baritone Gerald Finley in a live performance. There’s also Ciel d’Hiver (Winter Sky), a smaller rescoring of a movement from her orchestral triptych Orion. But it is Trans that really caught my ear in this record.

Listen to this disc on Spotify, iTunes, or visit the Odine website. Read an interview with Saariaho about composing the concerto, or examine her orchestral wizardry in all its fine detail by browsing the score here

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