It took until the second half of the 20th century for women to come into their own as composers, that is, for more than one or two to be recognised as important voices in the musical dialogue and the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is certainly one of them. She is one of the most important composers of modern music alive today.

Kaija Saariaho © Priska Ketterer
Kaija Saariaho
© Priska Ketterer

Living in Paris since 1982, where she first went to study and work at Boulez’s IRCAM with Gérard Grisey, she has nevertheless remained a true Finn in her heart. Combining her Scandinavian roots with the French stream and meticulousness, she has developed a style that is descriptive. The natural world, the Nordic lights, colours and landscapes of her native Finland all inspire her and are described through her music by extremely well-crafted manipulations of timbre and colour. Her music is also striking for its combination of immediate physical impact and broader imaginative connections. The delight of this concert is to root her own work in its context.

The concert opened with an earlier five-minute miniature solo violin piece by Saariaho called Nocturne. A piece that unfolds in a contemplative, improvisatory manner from one single note was written in Lutosławski’s memory in 1994. The piece finds its place in Saariaho’s ‘period of musical gestures’ and at its heart is a focus on colour and tone.  This technically challenging and meditative piece was beautifully performed by violinist Jacqueline Shave.

Over the years Saariaho has written many trios for different instrumental combinations, but apparently was hesitant and cautious about composing for a traditional piano trio, due to its long and weighty tradition. Her new piano trio Light and Matter was written in New York, inspired while watching the changing lights and colours of Morningside Park from her window. Besides providing her with the name for the new piece, perhaps that “continuous transformation of light on the glinting leaves and the immobile trunks of the solid trees became the inspiration for the musical material in this piece” she says.

For Saariaho, building a form is, above all else, the development of a sense of directed motion, from which one can neither separate the different contributing factors nor fragment the various steps. Directed musical transformations occurring simultaneously in multiple parameters and repetitive musical structures that change slowly which are often combined with a process of harmonic or rhythmic interpolation are essential features of her style.

Technically demanding, the piece, as in all Saariaho pieces, has very distinctive string writing. Combining the use of natural harmonics, kaleidoscopic glissandos, sul ponticellos and the mellow richness of the strings with an obscure, unexpected and insistent piano harmonics and sweeps (played on the piano strings) performed with clarity and expressiveness. The way the accumulated energy of each movement found release in the character of the next and with a feeling of space, breathes throughout the piece.

Through this sonic effervescence, a quality captured by the blending of dazzling instrumental colours, collisions and textures she is unerringly able to convey different sensations of light and sound and the light patterns that inspired the piece with sonic luxuriance and emotionality.

Light and Matter is in the tradition of French piano trios and an homage to French music reflecting the delicacy and light colours of Debussy and Fauré. It fitted perfectly that it was performed between Claude Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano and Gabriel Fauré's Piano Trio in D minor. The transition and osmosis linking these three pieces were extraordinarily beautiful and natural.

Debussy’s Sonata, written in his final years, is a work that is full of enthusiasm, innovation and optimism. It was performed by Caroline Dearnley with passion, energy and remarkable consistency. Accompanied by pianist Huw Watkins (who played the piano in all three chamber works) the sense of synchrony and mutual subtle phrasing between the two performers was technically brilliant and extremely refined. The final piece in the programme was Fauré’s beautifully radical, elegantly melodic and serene Piano Trio in D minor Op.120, exquisitely and gracefully performed.

This ethereal and atmospheric repertoire commandingly performed by Jacqueline Shave, Caroline Dearnley and Huw Watkins with extrovert lyricism, emotional intensity and compelling tonal sensuality. At the end of the concert I was left with an irrepressible sense of lightness.

Both the Wigmore Hall and the Britten Sinfonia should be congratulated for their extraordinary contribution to new music by commissioning and performing these wonderful new works – and making them available to the public in such high quality performances at such reasonable prices. This was an ideal exercise in both programming and performance and the Saariaho pieces were certainly placed in a suitable context.