To know Esa-Pekka Salonen as a conductor who also composes is, as the booklet accompanying the first CD of his music says, ". . . to consider his story in reverse." But that's not entirely true, because the Salonen who heads the orchestra clearly informs the Salonen who writes music: in these pieces you can hear the icy grandeur of Sibelius, the eccentricity of Ligeti, the sparkle and bite of Stravinsky, the modal wash of Debussy, and even the "tonality" of Reich. From this distinguished roster (all of whom, with the exception of Reich, Salonen champions with brilliant results) comes music that is innovative without being obviously eclectic. Rather, it is clear, direct, and wholly original. This composer really knows his way around the orchestra--and what's more, he can write a melody.
The LA Variations is a 20-minute work for Salonen's own orchestra that teems with parental pride. Aside from being an enthusiastic meditation on life in L.A. (which we all know is fast and chaotic, but not without its laid-back side), Salonen riffs on fellow Finnish composer Sibelius, but with modernist eyes. And his orchestral innovation is endless: although you're convinced, especially during a moment halfway through when the percussion joins a frantic bass clarinet, that there is a tape component to this piece, there is not; it's just the consequence of a clever composer with a spectacular ear for his medium. The "Big Machine" portion of the work is relentless without being repetitive, a technique the composer uses to equal effect in the cello concerto Mania.
The Five Images After Sappho, gorgeously sung by Dawn Upshaw, are beautiful little song fragments in the spirit of the poet. Each is a little glimpse into a specific emotion, drawing on the modal pentatonic beauty of Debussy and the cool distance of Stravinsky (think Three Japanese Lyrics but more romantic). Salonen's ability to extract the sound of an entire orchestra from only 14 players is as baffling as his capacity to get his larger ensemble to sound lush and modern without sounding either "Hollywood-ish" or too dry.
Giro is the most modernist work on the disc, coming right out of the "spectral" school of another fellow countryman, Magnus Lindberg. Here, orchestral timbres bounce off one another to create non-orchestral sounds--voices, for example--which Salonen uses to striking effect. The ice-cold opening is stately and evocative of Sibelius, though Salonen uses this same device more successfully in Gambit. It's a piece that is at once playful and pensive (this duality might be the most Finnish of characteristics) and uses many of the now-defined Salonen musical traits: very clear and straightforward musical ideas, brilliantly orchestrated though not dependent on specific timbral effects to achieve their purpose. The pacing of the music is unpredictable in the best sense and doesn't lack for a sense of humor. When I heard that Salonen was scaling back his conducting efforts in order to concentrate on composing, it was with a feeling of sad loss. But now that this disc is available, here's to a nice long hiatus so he can give us more. [11/10/2001]
--Daniel Felsenfeld, ClassicsToday.com