Amplified by our mortality and linear conception of time, we have a strong cultural tendency to treat final works – musical or otherwise – with special reverence and inclination, sometimes to an odd extent, as told in numerous legends dealing with transcendental imagery attached to artistic farewells – mental mirages often made redundant by encounters with actual documents of creativity, such as the painstakingly scribbled last notes in Sir Michael Tippett’s autograph full score of The Rose Lake (1991-93).
Although we keep yearning for archetypal closure, more often than not the last pieces of composers, whether grand statement or opus summum, tend to be something quite different – think of György Ligeti’s little piano étude, Canon (2003), or Ludwig van Beethoven’s substitute contre dance Allegro (1826) replacing the enormous Große Fuge as the finale of his String Quartet in B flat major, op. 130 (1825), not to mention Jean Sibelius’s final amendments to his Masonic Ritual Music, op. 113 (1926-27), written between 1945 and 1948.
Certainly, on some occasions, our expectations are met with a Parsifal (1877-1882) or Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà (1988-92), or even exceeded by unfinished scores left to our minds to complete – Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (1887-96) being a case in point.
In this context, Kaija Saariaho’s very last musical work, a concerto for trumpet and orchestra titled HUSH (2022-23), stands apart as something knowingly conceived as a finale – in both personal and professional terms – winding up (as far as such action is humanly conceivable) a cycle of solo concerti, an œuvre, a life. An outer rim to an extended spiral of a life’s work, HUSH embarks upon one more journey, kernels of which emerged almost 30 years ago, embedded in the trumpet parts of Saariaho’s first concerto, Graal Théâtre (1994) for violin and orchestra. In addition, further layers are drawn from the concerto’s Not a Knight retelling for solo violin, actor and orchestra.
“As the solo trumpet played an important part in my violin concerto Graal Théâtre, which was my first concerto, I was drawn to revisiting that material in what is to be my last concerto. I was also inspired by another kind of revisitation: Aleksi Barrière’s text Not a Knight, written in 2018 to be spoken around and inside Graal Théâtre as a form of illuminated marginalia to the music. The titles of HUSH and of its four movements come from this text, where the Grail legends resonate as a personal and collective quest of making music, and leaving an imprint into the silence”, Saariaho writes in her programme note.
Given its breathtaking world premiere performance by the fabulously versatile trumpet player Verneri Pohjola – to and with whom the concerto was written – joined by the Finnish Radio Symphony with Susanna Mälkki on the podium at the Helsinki Festival on 24 August, HUSH conjured up a sonorous ritual quite unlike anything in our concerto repertoire, presenting us with a quest into time and space, surrounded by silence into which the music is carried. Handed over to the listener by the composer and her chosen performers, the processes permute into ever-renewing shapes within our mental theatres – collective and individual – yielding to uncompromising musical gift of striking honesty.
Scored for solo trumpet and an orchestra of two flutes doubling piccolo and alto flute, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons doubling double bassoon, four horns, timpani, three percussion, celesta and strings, HUSH constitutes a 30-minute quest into sound and the realms beyond, setting the stage for unending discovery and rediscovery.
Conceived in the manner of an exposition, the first movement (Make the thin air sing) constitutes an absorbing sounding embodiment of its title, presented in translucent Calmo textures, with occasional Più mosso passages, rounding off with Expressivo, libero remarks. An orchestral landscape of bowed vibraphone, small suspended cymbal, alto flute and strings opens the movement, soon joined by the soloist, his first entry being echoed by the word “hush”, heard from within a flute glissando. Material from Graal Théâtre appears, transformed into riveting nocturnal guises by the years in between, sounded out with dark-hued echoes of (free) jazz-tinged ambiance, something woven into Saariaho’s music for quite some time, albeit hitherto in raiments en passant.
As suggested by its title, the second movement (Dream of falling) unfolds around a series of extended trumpet glissandi – with reverb – rooted in images from the composer’s recurring dreams. Woven together with seemingly free-floating orchestral tapestry, the movement lands on Misterioso, sombre coda for the soloist, escorted by low reeds and strings, tam-tam and bass drum.
Propelled by relentless Molto preciso rhythms inspired by noises from the monthly MRI scans that the composer underwent during her illness, the third movement (What ails you?) is the one most closely associated with the Fisher King episodes from the Grail legends, perhaps better-known to most music lovers in their Germanic retellings of the Amfortas wound. Against the rhythmic fabric of the orchestra, further glissandi and overpressured noises from the soloist are heard, culminating in a piercing Furioso cadenza of quick alternations of playing and shouting ad libitum.
A thinned-down closure follows, leading to a celesta ostinato that provides a bridge to the fourth movement.
”The last movement, Ink the silence, is an accompanied trumpet solo moving forward through an orchestral landscape. When the movement stops, we understand that it was the landscape that was moving and not the traveller, and we peek beyond the façade of illusions, into a silence that we have loaded with memories”, Saariaho writes.
Carrying the music over the threshold into eventual silence, a Misterioso, sempre espressivo passage is heard, introduced by a duet between trumpet and solo violin, paving the way for a full.ensemble postlude, combining hushed spoken phrases with the very last instrumental remarks, leading to a pause before dissolving into double bar made of resonant air.
Performed with immense dedication, peerless craft and profound love by Pohjola, the FRSO and Mälkki, HUSH was brought to life with tremendous intensity, interwoven with gripping frailty and astounding nuance. Living and breathing together throughout the 65-page score, the musicians and the fully packed audience were joined in a musical ritual of rare depth and transformative beauty. From silence to silence, the music was loaded with layers of meaning, some of which reveal themselves to the composer’s family circle only. HUSH turned the particular into the universal in a striking manner, as if whispered in one’s ear in shared solitude where everything else is left behind.
A joint commission between the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Helsinki Festival, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Asko|Schönberg, the Muziekgebouw, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Sinfonia Lahti, HUSH is set on a trajectory to become – like so many other works by Saariaho – an essential part of contemporary classical repertoire. With a healthy performance tradition ahead, time will pronounce in which context we are to perceive the music once it journeys forth here in the land of the living. Given the manifold associative networks woven into the score – not to mention all those layers of symbolism attached to the solo instrument itself – the concerto is likely to appeal to diverse audiences.
Although decisively a final chapter in the very special musical narrative called the Saariaho œuvre, in the hands of its performers and in the minds of its listeners, HUSH will eventually extend beyond its vanishing point, appearing as a mirror upon which whole new narratives dwell – some looking back into the composer’s earlier music, others inspiring us to gaze forward to questions yet unanswered.
Featured photo: Saara Autere