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Esa-Pekka SALONEN (b. 1958)
Cello Concerto (2017)
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. live, 8 February 2018, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
SONY CLASSICAL 19075928482 [35.17]

On the whole the general musical public often regards with suspicion multitalented composers/conductors. The feeling can be that one or the other activity is ruining a promising career. However, this does not necessarily hold water; think for example of the late and much lamented Oliver Knussen or Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps one might be less certain of Andre Previn as a composer but certainly he was a great musician. What about Igor Markevitch and even more Wilhelm Furtwangler, do we ever hear their compositions? The music of Felix Weingartner has also disappeared without a trace. So what about Esa-Pekka Salonen?

From the first moment of this Concerto, Salonen sets up what he terms a “chaos to line” idea, so that a multiplicity of ideas solidify into a passionate string melody emerging from a complex landscape. Then the lyrical line of the cello enters. The composer also comments that he imagined “the solo cello line as a trajectory of a moving object in space”. The first movement is a powerful but beautiful thirteen and a half minutes and the intensity remains throughout. There are passages which will remind listeners of Sibelius and indeed some very icy moments. There is a wonderful, moment when the cello is left alone above a deep, long-held drone followed by an ethereal, ghostly string chord.

The second movement opens with a big chord and is, as Salonen points out, “very simple in form but complex in texture”. Its length, at less than nine minutes, holds the attention but perhaps it does not contrast strongly enough with the first movement. The middle section however turns into a playful duet against, especially, the flute soloist. There are, incidentally, a few amazing passages of seemingly bird or seabird cries created by descending glissandi in the strings. I think Salonen must know Peter Sculthorpe’s music, as it’s a sound he employs in his orchestral works.

I found the third movement less successful simply because it seems too long for its material, which of itself doesn’t hit the mark as clearly as the earlier movements and this despite the use of percussion including the exciting congas and bongos which often when accompanying the solo cello can help to achieve a strong forward emphasis. At soon after two minutes we have a sort of ‘samba’ but this ‘fizzles out’ all too soon, but it leaves however the cello holding the rhythm intact. However, these percussion passages, and there are several of them, often quite thinly-scored seem to take away from the necessary tight formulation of the almost thirteen-minute movement as a whole and I couldn’t help but feel that direction was lost all too often.

This was my first encounter, I’m sorry to admit with Esa-Pekka Salonen the composer, having always admired his conducting and for me I’m sorry that this concerto could not have been part of a full length CD including one or two other works by him, so that I could get into his language more decisively.

The live recording is excellent and, as the composer admits, to have Yo-Yo Ma as his soloist is wonderful “and it is inspiring to know that his technique knows no limits. Perhaps more important nor does his imagination”.

Gary Higginson



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