Thursday, January 14, 2010

Esa-Pekka Salonen - Helix, Piano Concerto, & Dichotomie

"I think of myself basically as a composer," Esa-Pekka Salonen has often been heard to say, "with a little conducting on the side to help pay the bills." Despite the charming modesty of these words, the more remarkable fact is the actual phenomenon of Salonen today - not merely another of those composers who can manage a little conducting if called upon, not merely a conductor with a couple of symphonies in a secret portfolio, but a master at the top of both professions. Here, on this disc, is further proof. (Alan Rich)
Taken from the liner notes to the album, this excerpt nicely summarizes the man who has been the most important champion for new music in Los Angeles for the last 25 years. Under his lead the L.A. Phil has performed world premieres of works by Arvo Pärt, John Adams, John Corigliano, and many others, as well as important pieces by Ligeti, Stravinsky, Bartok, and scores of other adventurous composers. As of the time of writing, Salonen is on hiatus from conducting to spend more time composing, a move that, despite his great talent for conducting, shouldn't make anybody unhappy, because his music is terrific.

This album has recordings of three recent works, Helix (2005) for orchestra, a three-movement piano concerto (2007), and Dichotomie (2000) for solo piano. The recording of the piano concerto, with pianist Yefim Bronfman, is of the piece's world premier performance. The first two pieces are both extremely lively and full of color, utilizing every resource of the orchestra to consistently creative and emotive results. Helix follows a predetermined and mathematically informed structure, that of a spiral wrapping around a cone. The piece, working in a mood reminiscent of certain bits from Stravinsky's La Sacre du Printemps, steadily builds in tempo and dynamics for nine minutes until it reaches its climactic breaking point - the tip of the cone. Salonen's first piano concerto, on the other hand, has a much more organic (and hence difficult to describe) form. As the liner notes put it,
"The music gathers strength as piano and orchestra engage in a variation of the opening slow music. Low woodwinds carry on in an interlude, 'the elegance of very large animals' (Salonen). The variety of orchestral events is breathtaking; a duet for piano and viola, a fast orchestra answer to that duet, a grand romantic sweep accompanied by arpeggios in the strings. Then comes a new sound: a solo saxophone in a haunting, slow melody, a reminder that one of Salonen's great early works was a concerto for that instrument. It is joined now by the piano and by the strange, otherworldly whistle of three piccolos. The first movement ends."
The second two movements, equally epic and adventurous, bring the concerto to a hefty 33 minutes in length. This is one to sit down and listen to when you know you have the time to appreciate it.

The final piece on the album is Dichotomie for solo piano, a piece with a somewhat minimalist/austere character but packing a lot of ferocity. Divided into two sections, Mecanisme and Organisme, the work is almost 20 minutes of constantly streaming notes whose intensity rises and falls in slow waves, demanding amazing virtuosity from Yefim Bronfman.

In 2009 Salonen completed a violin concerto, and he plans to soon return to conduct the L.A. Philharmonic during part of its 2010-11 season.* Very good news for lovers of contemporary concert music in L.A.