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Kaija Saariaho: La Passion de Simone
Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Tapiola Chamber Choir, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Recorded at Helsinki Music Centre, Finland (October 19-20, 2012) – 66’32
Ondine ODE 1217-5 – Super Audio CD with booklet essays in English, French, and Finnish and texts/translations in French and English

“You were never able to say ‘we.’” This phrase from Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone encapsulates Simone Weil’s activist life. Its impact is jarring in its profundity, revealing the bitterness at the core of the piece’s narrative for a philosopher whose on personal sacrifice and suffering seemed to overshadow her message. Saariaho, the prolific, and rightly renowned Finnish composer, wrote this oratorio in 2006. Composed for soprano solo, choir, orchestra, and electronics, the piece is a tour de force for all involved, particularly the soprano. It is a provocative and powerful piece that can be downright oppressive at times.

Her music is colorful and inventive. The piece’s structure, divided into 15 “stations”, is a clever foundation that allows for an easily-accessible narrative to be shaped by composer and librettist. The orchestral writing is atmospheric but with clear sonorities relatable to the text. Saariaho’s themes are often made through rhythmic motives transformed in each station. It is a musical language that is masterfully cohesive. The electronic augmentation is relatively subtle but impacting in creating the distant but tangible world of Weil’s lifetime. The vocal writing is treacherous in its high tessitura. Scored almost exclusively around the text, it is writing that emanates visceral suffering and torment with wide leaps and laments. The choral writing, often acting as commentary in the Bach tradition, is homophonic and menacing.

The libretto by Amin Maalouf is pervaded by unbearable despondence. The Singer’s lines are sung from the perspective of a (figurative) sister of Weil’s with words that could constitute an imaginary therapy session (“You turned away from yourself/To fix your gaze upon the world”). The fifteen stations each proceed through a different emotion or episode in Weil’s life and each station is built with the contradicting forces of the Singer and the Reader. The Singer (much more prominent) grieves, rages, and laments through each station while the Reader offers a line of Weil’s philosophy on social justice or inequality.

Weil’s activist life is cause for a dizzying array of emotional responses. Her full-throated defense of the poor and disenfranchised was courageous. But the extent of her sympathy extended to drastic degrees such as when she worked in a labour factory to better understand the plight of the working class. Her extreme empathy finally resulted in her early death at the age of 34 from malnutrition. It is this extreme suffering that Saariaho attempts to convey. As a listener, the sensation can be exhausting, not merely from the sheer force of Saariaho’s music, but the emotional despondency of the singer whose rational response to Weil’s suffering is transformed into rhetorical hysterics.

The performers, led by the implacable Dawn Upshaw, give a convincing reading of this difficult score. Upshaw, put through the ringer by Saariaho, comes out no worse for the wear. Any transgressions in pitch are easily forgiven due to the sheer conviction of her singing and the musical grounding she maintains throughout. While her voice may have picked up a slightly more “beady” character in the vibrato over the years, it is still a uniquely beautiful instrument, one she employs with utmost dramatic skill.

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra with a propulsive hand. His affinity for this music comes across well on record and the players respond with impressive accuracy, even if they sound occasionally too restrained as in the apocalyptic Sixth Station. The Tapiola Chamber Choir sing with dramatic adroitness more than vocal consistency, but make a satisfying contribution.

The recorded sound is frustrating in its dryness, likely owed to the need to balance amplified electronics, soloist, and Reader. All are closely mic’d and the surround mix feels constricting with a muddled perspective. Unfortunately, I also noted some distortion at the very beginning of the Fourth Station on both surround and stereo mixes. Aurally, it’s not a particularly impressive record.

At well over an hour in length, the listener can feel defeated rather than sympathetic. There is little respite in the piece aside from the mesmerizing orchestral conclusion to the Eighth Station. Even at the conclusion, which leaves the audience with the words, “But the earth where you abandoned us/Still is the kingdom of deceit/Where innocents tremble,” there is no glimmer of hope, only a battering nothingness. Perhaps this is the point Saariaho and Maalouf wanted to convey. Is this a piece that declares the message is more important than this messenger? Or does this piece impart that without the messenger, the message has no hope of being heard? It appears to be the latter and the resentment over Weil’s unnecessary early death is overwhelming both emotionally and musically in this recording.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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