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Salonen: Helix, Piano Concerto, Dichotomie / Yefim Bronfman, Et Al

Release Date: 04/07/2009 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 4778103   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Esa-Pekka Salonen
Performer:  Yefim Bronfman
Conductor:  Esa-Pekka Salonen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 0 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SALONEN Helix. 1 Piano Concerto. 2 Dichotomie 3 Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond; 1,2 Yefim Bronfman (pn); 2,3 Los Angeles PO 1,2 DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4778103 (60:32) Live: Los Angeles 3,4/2007; Read more class="SUPER12">1 5,6/2008 2

Issued to celebrate Esa-Pekka Salonen’s time with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (he is now their first ever conductor laureate), this valuable disc really points us to how important Salonen may be seen one day as a composer. Although he reputedly sees his conducting activities as bill-paying ones, he is nevertheless ultra-high profile (he is presently principal conductor and artistic advisor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra). As a composer, he has some catching up to do. Salonen studied horn, composition, and conducting at the Sibelius Academy (Helsinki). His composition teachers have included Magnus Lindberg, Franco Donatoni, and Niccolò Castiglioni.

I was present at the European premiere of the Piano Concerto at the Henry Wood Proms (7/30/07). The pre-concert talk revealed that the idea of the piece was settled between Salonen and Bronfman over a few vodkas. Salonen uses bird-song from “invented” birds in the second movement (his description is “synthetic folk music with artificial birds,” for he also invents his own folk music from which to draw). The composer’s description is characteristically inventive and eloquent: “I imagined a post-biologic culture where the cybernetic systems suddenly develop an existential need of folk-lore.” The concept also functions as an homage to the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislav Lem (Salonen had earlier set words by Lem in the piece, Floof ; although this work has been recorded and issued on the Finlandia label, it is not currently available).

Rehearing the Concerto in this world premiere recording, the shadow of Bartók seems more obvious in the first movement. The piano’s role is not easily classified, for it zooms in and out of focus, sometimes a chamber player, sometimes a member of the tutti, and sometimes soloist proper. Although there are a wide variety of moods on offer here, it appears that Salonen is happiest when being playful. The saxophone solos toward the end of the first movement seem to make reference to the Berg of Lulu . The opening of the second movement is fluid and texturally just shy of referencing the French Impressionists, while Bartókian night music hovers later, mingled in with some Messiaen; at eight minutes in, there is an implied flowering into a melody from Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto (the tune never shows up, in fact). The finale is a rondo on a theme that actually constitutes a sequence of five chords, until the opening music of the first movement returns to bring the journey full circle.

The orchestral piece Helix dates from 2005. It is a BBC commission and was premiered, again at the London Proms, by the World Orchestra for Peace under Gergiev. The work’s form is based on a spiral or, in Salonen’s own words, “a curve that lies on a cone and makes a constant angle with the straight lines parallel on the base of the cone.” Salonen composes an accelerando in terms of the tempo getting faster, but simultaneously the note values themselves become longer. It sounds like a compositional conceit, but in fact what is happening is the material is subjected to constantly narrowing concentric circles until it reaches the center and can go no further. The scoring of Helix is complex, but clearly from the hand of a master. As is the case with Birtwistle, clarity is miraculously available against all the odds. There is also an underlying relentless rhythm that drives the trajectory. The live performance is magnificent. It glows with life. The final enthusiastic audience ovation is fully justified.

Those interested and wishing to explore Salonen’s music further might find Gloria Cheng’s recital of contemporary piano music on Telarc just the ticket (80712). It also includes Dichotomie (1999–2000) as well as Yta II . Cheng, the dedicatee of Dichotomie , is just quicker than Bronfman in this piece (17:13 as opposed to 17:36). She is also flightier and more subtle. In Bronfman, one hears Bartók in the rhythms of the first movement, “Mécanisme,” and his handling of the swirling, fantastical figures remains earthbound, more overtly modern in handling than Cheng. This seems, on the surface, closer to Salonen’s description of the movement (“like a machine, like one of those Tinguely mobiles, very active, extroverted and expressive”), except that Tinguely’s mobiles are often colorful in their extroversion, where Bronfman is not. Cheng’s handling seems, on reflection, closest to Salonen’s ideal. The second movement, “Organisme,” is based on the metaphor of a tree, “a slender willow that moves gracefully in the wind and returns always to its original shape and position” (Salonen). Bronfman honors the graceful element while taking across some of the mechanisms of the first movement. Again, Cheng is more graceful and beautiful and, ultimately, the more satisfying performer. Nevertheless, this DG release is a vitally important document. The catalog clearly needs more Salonen in his composer guise.

FANFARE: Colin Clarke
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Works on This Recording

Helix by Esa-Pekka Salonen
Conductor:  Esa-Pekka Salonen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2005 
Venue:  Live    
Concerto for Piano by Esa-Pekka Salonen
Performer:  Yefim Bronfman (Piano)
Conductor:  Esa-Pekka Salonen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2007 
Venue:  Live 
Dichotomie by Esa-Pekka Salonen
Performer:  Yefim Bronfman (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2000 

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