Esa-Pekka Salonen

0 of 5 stars

Salonen
Foreign Bodies
Wing on Wing
Insomnia

Anu Komsi (soprano)
Piia Komsi (soprano)

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Recorded in September 2004 in Kulttuuritalo, Helsinki


Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: July 2005
CD No: DG 477 5375
Duration: 67 minutes

This second recording of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s orchestral works (following Sony’s well-stocked selection on SK 89158) again features Salonen in the roles of composer and conductor – but for all his virtuoso conducting skills evident in steering these colossal scores, it is the music itself that makes such an indelible impression.

Having more or less shed the early debt to European modernism (it is hard not to attribute this to the influence of southern California where he has been based since the early 90s), Salonen now writes in an exuberantly pan-tonal style that is immediately accessible and hugely enjoyable to listen to, while still providing an abundance of textural and formal intrigue to satisfy the most discerning ear. It is in fact difficult to separate Salonen the composer from Salonen the conductor, since his opulent orchestration obviously stems from a deep working knowledge of the orchestra; furthermore Salonen’s stylistic influences are worn very close to the surface of the music and reflect the composers who we associate him most closely with as an interpreter – Lutoslawski, Berio, Lindberg and John Adams, and further in the background are Debussy, Ravel, Mahler and Sibelius. A heady mix but distilled by a sensibility strong enough to yield an original voice – this is some of the most joyously affirmative music being written today.

Foreign Bodies (2001) is a three-movement work that utilises the largest orchestral forces ever employed by Salonen and is evidently designed to seize the listener by the lapels. A torrent of teeming invention, the work is based on that archetype of contemporary classical music, the dysfunctional machine. The characteristic gesture of the music is of microscopic organisms splitting, evolving and metamorphosing into something new, an image that pervades the first movement and returns with even more force in the third. The central panel begins and ends like the slow movement anticipated but pulse again asserts itself in between in a spectacular passage of downward-fanning scales. This riotous, kaleidoscopic showpiece is dispatched with extraordinary collective virtuosity by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in a performance that would not disgrace one of the world’s super-orchestras.

Insomnia (2002) is audibly out of the same stable – cascades of rising and falling patterns, hammered-out dotted rhythms, passages where a densely packed chord is ‘taken on a walk’ à la Klee: all of these gestures being used as sound-images – “thoughts become prison cells”. The orchestral writing is quite stunning even by Salonen’s standards. What truly lifts the work aloft for me however is a central plateau of ecstatic harmonic development that sounds like no other music I know of. Again the performance packs a huge punch – these really are benchmark realisations.

Wing on Wing, written for the inauguration of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2004 is something very different. It features two sopranos who drift in and out of the music in a wordless vocalise, often in a quasi-pentatonic modality that is strangely reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica (sic). Their arabesque-strewn lines continually intertwine in a way that exploits the extraordinary timbral similarity of the voices of the sisters Anu and Piia Komsi. There are also two other voices in the work, courtesy of the sampling machine – that of the hall’s architect Frank O. Gehry (in various degrees of intelligibility) and none other than the plainfin midshipman, a fish native to southern California waters. This latter element and the title (borrowed from sailing terminology) point to a maritime influence which seems to define the work’s soundworld.

Low pedal points invoke black depths above which hover swaying shapes suffused in an aquamarine harmonic light, with the singers circling each other like benign basking sea-creatures. This languorous imagery dominates the first half of the work, after which a powerful current sucks the music into an accelerating vortex, finally to issue in a vast wave. Quite simply this is one of the most beguiling pieces of contemporary music I have ever heard and I am sure it will win Salonen many new friends.

I cannot recommend this thrilling disc highly enough. With state-of-the-art recorded sound revealing even the smallest details of these huge scores, I hope the disc will reach the ears of not just dedicated new music enthusiasts but the general listener also, to whom it would make the best possible introduction to the world of contemporary music.

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