Salonen conducts Salonen

Ghosts of past Romantic masters flit through these flamboyant new scores

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Salonen conducts Salonen

  • Helix
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
  • Dichotomie

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto runs for more than half an hour, barely pausing for breath. The turbulence and energy of the music give it a surreal quality, as if the whole history of the Romantic concerto were being feverishly revisited and reshaped in 2007 with a matter-of-life-and-death urgency. You may hear echoes of any number of august historical figures – Scriabin, Rachmaninov, even Respighi – but the aura is always contemporary. While those composers might recognise Salonen’s rhythmic vocabulary, and the flamboyant rhetoric of his piano-writing, his harmonic palette is something else.

Recorded live in Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, this performance has virtuosity and no-holds-barred exuberance in abundance. On early acquaintance I couldn’t find enough shape or sense of purpose within the welter of notes, the sheer density of the solo-orchestra mix. But Salonen the composer certainly has the courage of his convictions. Helix, written two years before the concerto and less than a third of its length, is an even more uncompromising demonstration of textural overload, a noisy, relentlessly forceful response to the image of a spiral revolving at increasing speed. Performance and recording are stunning, the audience reaction at the end ecstatic.

Dichotomie (2000) for solo piano provides a useful digest of Salonen’s current compositional preoccupations. Its first movement deploys aggressive but constantly shifting rhythmic mechanisms whose origins lie in Prokofiev, while its second seems closer to the flowing spontaneity of the Ligeti Etudes. Bronfman’s authority in this music is phenomenal and here, at last, you sense a genuine match between medium and message.

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