Esa-Pekka Salonen is a much celebrated conductor who initially only took up the profession to allow performance of his own works. His success prevented him from finding the time to compose however. A few years ago he took a sabbatical to allow him to reappraise the compositions he had completed and to move to a more accessible compositional style. It allowed him to produce a string of very colourful orchestral works. So he has emerged as both a significant composer as well as conductor
Having lived with the music of others in his conducting career, the influences are easy to spot such as Messiaen, Debussy, Stravinsky, John Adams and, as they always say with Finnish composers, Sibelius. Salonen admits to the Sibelius element but the Sibelius influence isn't so easy to pick out much of the time - I think he would have baulked at this music's opulence.
The LA Variations is a 20-minute work that he wrote for his own Orchestra which is more a set of variations on a harmony rather than a theme. It sways between atmospheric impressionism - early on there is an almost direct quote form the Sibelius Fourth Symphony (just one muted brass chord), quicker and rhtymically more dynamic music with more than a jazzy hint of the blues in places. Salonen, not surprisingly, is a master of orchestration even fooling the listener at one point that electronics have been added - well he fooled me!
The Five Images After Sappho, are sung by Dawn Upshaw. She sings wonderfully but her voice sounds a little too mature when the subject matter is the journey of a teenage girl from childhood to marriage and love. The songs are beautiful miniatures with the final wedding song being of most substance. The French influence and early Stravinsky are to the fore. With just a chamber ensemble Salonen has produce a rich and lush palette of sound.
The same inventiveness is true for Mania, a chamber cello concerto, which sounds more driven and rhythmic without ever sounding repetitive. In some ways this is the most satisfying work on the disc.
Giro was written much earlier than the other works and sounds more modernistic. Slaonen admitted returning later to the piece and this shows in the lush orchestration: Having said that, the slightly harsher modernism makes a pleasant break from the sweetness of the works surrounding it on this recording.
The final work, Gambit, was written as a birthday present to his friend and colleague Magnus Lindberg. This is quite a light piece but enjoyable nonetheless. It is not, thankfully, reheated Lindberg - he can't hope to match him.
All the works are immediately attractive with just enough modernist bite to add enough spice for some listeners. I don't feel that his music has a strong individual voice in the way that, say, Lindberg or some other great Finnish composers have (yes there are several - what an amazing country!). For all that though, all the works stand repeated hearings very well and there is so much to enjoy. With definitive performances and recordings this is well worth its five stars rating.