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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Esa-Pekka SALONEN (b. 1958)
Foreign Bodies (2001) (Part 1: Body Language [9:52]; Part 2: Language [6:03]; Part 3: Dance [3:39])
Wing on Wing (2004) [25:56]
Insomnia (2002) [21:14]
Anu Komsi; Piia Komsi (sopranos)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Recorded Kulttuuritalo, Helsinki, Finland, September 2004. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5375 [66:54]

 

Esa-Pekka Salonen has had an almost meteoric rise to fame as a young conductor, taking the reins at the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the tender age of thirty four. Despite this he has always considered himself a composer first and foremost. In his own understated words: "I never planned to become a conductor. I studied conducting a little bit in order to conduct my own stuff". After completing his studies in his native Finland it was to Italy that he turned, working under the tutelage of composers Donatoni and Castiglione. Yet the fact that his conducting career has somewhat overshadowed his achievements as a composer thus far is not surprising when one considers that he made his debut with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the age of twenty-one. He was yet further thrust into the limelight when to great acclaim he stepped in to conduct a Philharmonia Orchestra concert in London in 1983. Even more extraordinary, he had already been conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic regularly for eight years before he took up the post of Music Director in 1992.

It is only in recent times that his work as a composer has increasingly made its mark with works such as LA Variations and Giro, both heard at Londonís BBC Henry Wood Proms a few years ago. They demonstrate a composer with an unerringly impressive ear for often complex orchestral detail and timbre.

The lure of composition finally got the better of Salonen for in 2000 he took the decision to take a year off from conducting to concentrate on writing. All three works on this disc stem from the years immediately following this conducting sabbatical. These years also mark, from the late 1990s onwards, Salonenís most consistent and productive period of creativity. The orchestral works Giro and Gambit, Five Images after Sappho for soprano and fourteen instruments and the cello concerto Mania all stem from these particularly fertile years.

Like his compatriot and close friend Magnus Lindberg, Salonen does not shy away from orchestral gestures in a world where some claim the orchestra to have become an unfashionable and outdated medium of expression. Lindbergís works are architectural constructions on a huge scale. Salonen however takes his fascination with machine-like mechanisms and places them in direct contrast, even conflict, with a more physical or human mode of creativity. In part it is this cross-fertilisation that gives Foreign Bodies its title. Salonen explains that on the one hand he had in mind foreign bodies as a biological term, in the manner of "bacteria entering the system". He also considers himself to be a "foreign body" having spent so much time away from his native Finland as a result of his conducting career. In another sense he sees the instruments of the orchestra as a body of sound and an extension of the human body itself. He talks of his fascination with the mechanical and contrasting organic processes involved in contemporary music. It is the mechanical elements that come to the fore in Body Language, the first movement and the most substantial of the three. The ferocity of the opening bars makes an immediate impact, recalling Mossolovís Iron Foundry in its massive mechanical power before the music quickly dissipates into toccata-like rhythmic patterns. There are occasional harmonic echoes of Lindberg but this is Salonen being very much himself, the physical impact of his material and bold, often dense orchestration, immediately engaging and involving. The central movement, Language, is a luminous study in glowing, gently pulsing colours that gathers intensity and rhythmic energy before turning in on itself to end quietly, moving directly into the final movement, Dance. The initial ostinatos are the closest Salonen comes to the influence of minimalism with a hint of John Adams as the machine grows ever more powerful, rising to a return to the opening of the work and a huge Messiaenic chord in culmination.

Wing on Wing is Salonenís most recent large-scale work, written in 2004 in homage to the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the man who designed it, architect Frank O. Gehry. Along with the voices of sopranos Piia Komsi and Anu Komsi (the latter being the wife of CBSO conductor and fellow Finn Sakari Oramo) the sampled voice of Gehry himself is used by Salonen in a score that contains some of the most ravishing music that he has so far produced. Once again the washes of sound that Salonen creates bring their own structure to the music, the cohesion of the sound world perhaps being even more important than the formal organisation of the material itself. The overall effect is magical as well as beautiful and presumably well suited to what must be the admirable acoustics of Gehryís new hall. Indeed, listening to the music I found myself hoping that the opportunity would sometime arise to hear it in the acoustic clarity of Birminghamís Symphony Hall.

Insomnia sits between Foreign Bodies and Wing on Wing in chronology and like Foreign Bodies engages in the same maelstrom of machine and body. Here the chorale that underpins the music is subjected to restless, fleeting interjections that at their peak become an exhilarating rush of ideas and imagery. Salonen refers to the chorale and mechanistic elements of his material as the "archetypes" of his music. The physical side of the material manifests itself in numerous instrumental solos, many demanding considerable virtuosity. Once again the work presents itself as a physically involving experience, Salonenís extravagant, even indulgent orchestration (listen out for the Wagner tubas) irresistible in its appeal. The build to the final inexorable climax is almost worthy of Scriabinís Poem of Ecstasy in its impact.

This disc has already shot to the top of my best releases of 2005 so far and I suspect will still be there, or at least very close to it, come the end of the year. These are three hugely impressive works, brilliantly captured in sonically spectacular sound by the Deutsche Grammophon engineers and played with sheer brilliance by the composer and his "home" orchestra. A triumph all round and highly recommended.

Christopher Thomas



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