Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto – the composer conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Yo-Yo Ma [Sony Classical]

4 of 5 stars

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Cello Concerto

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Recorded 8 February 2018 in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: February 2019
Duration: 35 minutes



Yes, a thirty-five-minute Cello Concerto, that’s all you get, but it is a first recording. Sony Classical must have great faith in the pulling-power of Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yo-Yo Ma.

Certainly, Salonen’s traditionally structured piece (completed early in 2017 for Ma) – in three movements, minimally entitled, simply I, II, III – is intriguing, the expression akin to riddle-me-this if without all the answers being given. But better enigma than obviousness; furthermore the invention, while not challenging (except technically for the cellist) is not predictable either, for the score comes across as having its otherworldly, sci-fi aspects, cello, large orchestra and, on occasions, an electronic component (samples and loops) coming together.

The first movement opens in pulsating and chiming terms, the strings ravishing the senses and pushing heavenwards via constellations. It’s two minutes before the cello enters, rhapsodising, endless melody, maybe too endless, not so much note-spinning as galaxy gazing; such textural and atmospheric delights lull the listener (who wants to be a critic) – beautifully recorded it must be said, the balance between cello and orchestra exactly just – but where is the music going? A moderate pace is sustained in the opening movement and not until ten minutes in does the pace quicken and some agitation is apparent (hindsight suggests it could have been earlier) if soon settling back to contemplation.

The second movement opens with what might be described as a cosmic explosion – shards of stars. Fast? Nope, further slowness and reflection, somewhat eerie, a cool alto flute adding its distinctive timbre to a cello that is also pre-recorded and played-back as part of the whole, like interstellar birdsong, and an orchestra crescendoing in trepidation and suggestive of new horizons: beguiling sounds. Not sure where we have reached, or why, but it is an attacca into III, the cello given cadenza-like writing, the music now fast, fuelled by athletic hand-drumming on bongos, the orchestra (with Latin-American percussion) punchy, a destination in sight (?), pulsations and exuberance suggest so, bright scoring thickened by the bass of a piano, a wild dance ensues, clarinet as important as cello. Loose ends (many) now being gathered, the conclusion may surprise – I won’t spoil – save I thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

With the composer conducting, Ma in top form and a great response from the LA Phil, there can be no doubting the excellent performance (live, applause removed) and that the work itself, here as well-served as is possible, issues an invitation to return to it.

  • Royal Festival Hall, London on Sunday February 24 at 7.30 p.m. – Esa Pekka Salonen conducts his Cello Concerto with Truls Mørk; also Sibelius & Bartók, Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Recording released on March 8

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