Es-Pekka Salonen has quietly become one of the more important composers of our time and this generous CD presents three of his most powerful works that demonstrate this fact. Many may have felt that Salonen's stature as a conductor would lure him away form the composing arena, but this young genius quietly goes about his multifaceted busy career as a gifted conductor (he has honed the Los Angeles Philharmonic into one of the world's great orchestras), as an inventive conceptual programmer, as a festival participant in the best of the world's festival of music, and as a warmly confident communicator of the necessity of classical music in our lives. While he first gained notice for his emphasis on the meticulous readings of 20th Century composers (Lutoslawski, Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, Messiaen, etc), his audiences now find him exploring the Old Masters with as much attention to detail and finding the inner core of the composers' wishes. His time as a conductor is now.
And perhaps it is that constant commitment to revealing performances of great music that has nurtured his own creative process. This CD clearly finds Salonen with a recognizable musical language, with indelible marks that are found in all of his compositions, with a clear and inimitable voice.
Salonen goes for clarity of line: his themes are born, grow, mutate, and miscengenate, all in the rich palette of the very large orchestra. His use of the percussion section echoes a bit of Stravinsky, a bit of Adams, a bit of the Slavic school. His use of the woodwinds and brass are as exotically creative as those of Shostakovich and Lutoslawski, and his massive spectrum of writing for strings has the urgency of the great Romantic composers like Wagner's 'Tristan', Sibelius, Ravel, etc.
'Foreign Bodies' (2001) thrusts open with a range of color that seems almost climatic - until the work fuses into an elegiac second movement, and subsequently ends in a mysterious dance that flutters and flies as lightly as the opening movement is grounded in declaration.
'Insomnia' (2002) is a richly evocative work about the colors of night - not the serene view of other composers but the place of nightmares and fears and disturbances that make space without light a table for restless tossing and turning. The use of the chorale mode opens the work eventually giving over to Salonen's 'machine' effect of churning instruments against each other. The work moves to an adagio in the low registers of horns and tubas signaling the arrival of sleep only to be blissfully interrupted with the rise of the colorful sun announcing day with ascending brass themes, artfully unresolved as befitting the unknown that accompanies dawn.
'Wing on Wing' is perhaps the most majestic and richly creative work by Salonen to date. Composed as an homage to the new, extraordinarily brilliant Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the brainchild creation of architect Frank Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, this work combines the broadest spectrum of orchestral color with the human voice, both sung and spoken. The work is about water and wind, echoing the curvilinear structure of the hall's concept. The term 'wing on wing' is taken from the nautical term of opening the foresail and mainsail to maximum amount of surface of capture all of the wind available. Salonen blends the string choirs with the brass choirs and punctuates the movement with every percussive instrument imaginable to unfurl this ship on high seas. To this he adds the wordless vocalises of two sopranos (with impossibly high tessituras!) and the recorded spoken words by Gehry about the artistic process. In the end the words 'as in a dream' float throughout the hall over the luxurious palette of the orchestra.
The performances here are well done with Salonen conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and soloists. And as fine as this recording is, there is nothing to compare the live performance of 'Wing on Wing' in the hall for which it was written, a hall that has encouraged Salonen to place his forces throughout the building to reveal how even the smallest sound in the farthest corner can be heard with utmost clarity. But this comes as close as can be expected. Grady Harp, February 2005