Salonen LA Variations

Gambit and Mania afford the strongest taste of Salonen’s style‚ but every work here is arrestingly performed and superbly recorded

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Salonen LA Variations

  • LA Variations
  • (5) Images after Sappho
  • Giro
  • Mania
  • Gambit

Esa­Pekka Salonen once told me in a private conversation that he considered composition and conducting to be essentially ‘two sides of the same coin’. This disc throws new light on that statement. What has made Salonen’s past recordings of Messiaen‚ Lutos¹awski and Ligeti so special has been not only his immense technical dexterity as a conductor but his insight into the music as a gifted composer in his own right. In this album‚ one feels‚ the relationship has been reversed. This is music written from the perspective of the composer’s podium‚ rather as Wagner‚ Mahler and Strauss must have composed music in their time.
This comment may sound on the surface entirely favourable‚ but in fact intimate familiarity with great orchestral music of the past can be dangerous to a composer. For whereas Wagner‚ Mahler and Strauss were at the forefront of developments in the modern orchestra‚ the medium Salonen has inherited is more settled in its ways. Music that an orchestra finds idiomatic can seem bland to a listener. On first listening‚ I found the music here elusively conventional‚ rather as if Salonen’s very orchestral expertise had prevented the tension between compositional idea and performing realisation from sparking something new. There’s also a temptation‚ as in the case of Leonard Bernstein‚ to interpret everything in terms of music Salonen is known to enjoy conducting: ‘Oh yes‚ Sibelius 4 – ah‚ Rite of Spring’‚ I found myself thinking during the opening minute of LA Variations.
This is‚ of course‚ unfair to the artist and to his music. Yet there is a sense that Salonen’s music has been hampered by the way his conducting career took off in his early twenties. Consider the works of Pierre Boulez‚ who had had 20 years to establish himself as a composer before he became the musical director of the New York Phil. His musical identity was so strong by then that there was no question of his compositions being shaped by the musical experience of conducting Ravel or Stravinsky. In fact‚ it is the very distance between these two areas of activity that has enabled the interesting cross­fertilisation that has taken place‚ say‚ in the revised versions of Le visage nuptial and Figures­Doubles­Prismes.
Salonen is certainly not a magpie in the style of Leonard Bernstein. But one senses that his compositional voice has taken longer to assert itself than that of his compatriot‚ Magnus Lindberg‚ precisely because of the time he has spent conducting works by Sibelius‚ Lutos¹awski and Stravinsky‚ and you can almost hear him tussling with these demons on this disc. The work that suffers most in this respect is Five Images after Sappho‚ which has‚ as the booklet text puts it‚ ‘simple‚ clear­cut musical ideas’ but feels strangely impersonal‚ as if Salonen is afraid of compromising himself musically. It is the harder­edged‚ more complex Salonen as displayed by Giro‚ a revision of a work first conceived in 1981‚ and the breathtaking cello concerto‚ Mania‚ that suggest most clearly what he is actually about.
So I do have some misgivings about some of the compositions here; but there is a tremendous warmth to the performances‚ as evinced by the arresting playing of the LA Philharmonic and the magical recorded sound of producer David Mottley and engineer Richard King. Recordings as special as this can only be created through the closest possible understanding between conductor‚ orchestra and producer‚ and LA Variations is a product of one of the great recording partnerships of recent times.

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