Five Images after Sappho
Mania, for violoncello solo and ensemble
Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
Anssi Karttunen (cello)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: October 2001
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
Duration: 75 minutes
Although Esa-Pekka Salonen the composer has become increasingly well-represented in concert programmes over the last five years or so, this first CD entirely devoted to his work is surely a quantum leap – and what a thrilling disc it is too. Generously filled and packed with teeming, swirling invention, it left this listener dizzy, most agreeably so.
Five of Salonen’s most significant works of the last five years are presented; ranging from LA Variations of 1996/97 to the cello concerto, Mania, completed this year. What emerges from hearing them together is the remarkable extent to which Salonen has defined a highly enticing and cogent soundworld, one entirely his own, which wears its influences very close to the surface. (I feel tolerably certain that I could identify a recent Salonen composition without advance knowledge of its authorship.)
Two influences in particular are strongly evident. Salonen’s teacher Franco Donatoni can be heard in the music’s anarchic playfulness and whirling pattern-making, while the luminous harmony and ferocious energy to be found in these pieces unmistakably bear the imprint of his Finnish colleague and collaborator, Magnus Lindberg, for whom Gambit (1998) is a birthday present. Further in the background are echoes of Adams, Ligeti, Berio, Stravinsky and Sibelius. It’s a potent mixture, especially when coupled with Salonen’s experience as a world-class conductor, which is reflected in the virtuosity of the orchestral writing. Yet he manages to create something new and distinctive out of these elements. Above all, there is an overriding sensation of unbridled joy in the music, not by any means one of the commonest properties of contemporary music; it’s hard not to attribute this to Salonen’s adoption of California as his home.
All of these elements are immediately apparent in the 20-minute LA Variations. This work was expressly conceived as a vehicle for the collective virtuosity of his Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The basic material of these variations is not melodic but harmonic – two hexachords, together making up all twelve chromatic pitches. This results in harmonies akin to Lindberg’s, where a chord can be heard to be built out of two distinct harmonic fields which retain their separate identities whilst at the same time sounding together to create a kind of meta-harmony. The two hexachords also infiltrate the melodic writing, which often alternates between two separate strata, as at the outset where a sinewy unison melody is crosscut with a dreamy flute motif. The variations encompass many episodes – dense but iridescent chorales, motoric dances, and a beautiful passage built out of rippling arpeggios – yet they are artfully woven into a single mass with a non-stop forward motion until a final dissipation into the ether. Conscious or not, the radiant figuration running throughout LA Variations brought another composer to mind, the Tippett of the 70s and 80s – his style was transformed by contact with America. Salonen’s faith in his Orchestra is amply repaid in a performance of exhilarating energy and commitment.
Two shorter orchestral works display many of the same traits. Gambit is of truly outrageous high spirits, a kind of toccata constructed out of repeating two-note patterns. Just as the mood is in danger of becoming almost delirious, a totally unexpected vista is revealed which proves to be the end of the piece. If I find Giro the least successful, it is because the familiar gestures seem to be utilised with a less sure sense of direction. This may be due to the work being a rewrite of a much earlier piece, whose harder edge can still be detected below the surface and which does not entirely sit well the passages of ecstatic change-ringing which are audibly of more recent provenance.
Two works for soloist and chamber orchestra complete the programme. Mania is a study in perpetual motion. The only let-up in the constant driving pulse comes at the end, but it’s a jump-cut to an even faster tempo, not a slower one. At times, the cello proposes a more expansive, lyrical line, but whenever it does, the work’s propulsive motion diverts to carry on underneath in the orchestra, alternating liquid arpeggiated patterns with flickering ostinati. Elsewhere, the soloist is content to be first amongst equals and folds itself into the orchestral fabric. The performance of Anssi Karttunen, a long-time associate of Salonen, is big-boned where it needs to be and self-effacing when the collective voice comes to the fore. The London Sinfonietta effortlessly sustains the work’s manic energy until the genuinely witty final pay-off.
Five Images after Sappho was composed in 1999 for the London Sinfonietta and Dawn Upshaw. It sets (in English translations) four aphorisms followed by an extended final song. The Sappho texts chart a young woman’s love, wedding and consummation (the last would not be out of place in Stravinsky’s Les noces) and the settings are a perfect vehicle for the wide-eyed innocence and radiance of Dawn Upshaw’s voice, here delivered in all of its glory. The writing favours a rapturous pentatonic modality, above all in the ribbon-like orchestral accompaniment of the second song, ’Without Warning’, and the moonlit idyll which is the fourth song, ’The Evening Star’. The final song, ’Wedding’, is a highly effective peroration based on copulatory rhythms ending with a wonderful image of spent post-coital release.
Following hard on the heels of Sony’s release of works by Saariaho, conducted by Salonen, this is another magnificent achievement from the same stable. Like parts of that disc, I find the recording a little opaque, which suits Salonen’s full-blooded and technicoloured music rather less than it does Saariaho’s glacial soundworld. That’s a minor quibble when this is such a glorious, life-enhancing disc.