Sunday, September 8, 2019

Salonen's Complete Sony Recordings, part 5

Finally coming to an end! The final post covers discs 50 to 61. This has been an enjoyable journey with almost no exceptions. An interesting selection of repertoire played with expertise and conviction. I will have a general comment on Salonen's conducting at the end, but up front I want to point out that one of the best aspects of his creativity is his wide-ranging choice of repertoire.
  • Jean Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor; Carl Goldmark: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor. Joshua Bell, violin with the LA Philharmonic. Recorded in 1999. As far as I can tell, the Sibelius Violin Concerto is the only piece that Salonen has recorded more than once. It appears twice in this collection and there is a third recent recording with Hilary Hahn. Like some other works by Sibelius, this was composed in the intervals between alcoholic binges (along with the Valse triste and other incidental music for a play). It was not initially successful. Not until Jascha Heifetz took it up in the 1930s with a brilliant recording and many concert performances, did the concerto enter the mainstream repertoire. After this I went back and listened to part of the Hahn recording. I think, particularly in the last movement, her recording has more point and grace. The Goldmark concerto dates from 1877 and in its day was very popular. Recently it has re-entered the repertoire.
    • Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen, Duet Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon, String Orchestra and Harp, Capriccio: Prelude. Recorded in 1987 with the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra. Metamorphosen, the main work on the album, is a very unusual piece, a thirty minute long chamber piece for twenty-three solo strings! It started out as a septet and expanded to eleven and then twenty-three instruments. It was written towards the end of WWII on a commission from Paul Sacher and was partly a pretext to allow Strauss to travel to Zurich for the premiere. The work was completed in April 1945 and premiered in Zurich in January of 1946. The music is deeply introverted and both autumnal and elegiac as one would expect. From what Strauss wrote in his journal, the tribute is to the death of German culture at the hands of the "twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom."
    • Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka, Orpheus. Two ballets launch a seven-disc survey of Stravinsky's orchestral music. These were previously available in a box from Sony. Petrushka, composed in 1910-11, immediately prior to the Rite of Spring, is a remarkable piece full of Russian folklore set to striking music. Orpheus, a re-telling of the most popular of all Greek myths, for musicians at least, was composed in California in 1947 and premiered in 1948. This recording is from 1991 with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Salonen does very well with the montage cuts in sections like the Shrovetide Fair and Russian Dance. He is rhythmically crisp when that is needed and expressive when that is needed; more the former than the latter in Stravinsky.
    • Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird, Jeu de cartes. Another early ballet, The Firebird, premiered in 1910, was Stravinsky's first for Diaghilev and was an instant success. Stylistically it shows the influence of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, but perhaps a bit improved. The plot blends two Russian folktales. Jeu de cartes, a neo-classical work, was written in 1936-37 with choreography by George Balanchine and premiered in New York. The recording dates from 1988 with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Their brass and percussion sound particularly robust in The Firebird. Jeu de cartes is suitably jaunty.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps, Symphony in Three Movements. Again with the Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded in 1989. I grew up with the 1968 Cleveland recording with Pierre Boulez. A couple of years ago I heard a terrific live performance with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. This performance is excellent. Rhythmically tight when needed, expressive when needed and above all, clear textures and well-defined dynamics. The Symphony in Three Movements was Stravinsky's first major piece written after his move to the US--composed between 1942 and 45.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella, Ragtime, Renard, Octet. Pulcinella, a one-act ballet, was Stravinsky's first neo-classical work, dating from 1920. It uses characters from the 18th century Neapolitan commedia dell'arte. The rest of the disc is a couple of shorter works and Renard, an unclassifiable one-act opera-ballet called by Stravinsky an "Histoire burlesque chantée et jouée." It was written in 1916 and is based on a Russian fable. The recording is from 1990 with the London Sinfonietta. If Pulcinella were the first thing you heard by Stravinsky you would wonder what the fuss was all about. But in context, the atonal avant-garde world of 1920, it was the most radical thing he could have done. The last piece, the Octet, was completed in 1923, another early neo-classical work. It experiments with sonata-form, variation-form and fugue.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Movements for Piano and Orchestra. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Stravinsky relocated to Western Europe. Unfortunately he was cut off from royalty payments that would have been owed him by Tsarist Russia. In order to provide himself a living he wrote music that would provide playing opportunities for him, hence two of the works on this disc: the Capriccio and the Concerto, both for piano and orchestra (of winds in the former). Both were composed in the 1920s. The Movements were the result of a commission. Composed in 1959, the piece is twelve-tone and was influenced by Webern. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments is a homage to Debussy. Written in 1920 it is a work of experiment that has attracted a lot of interest from theorists. Paul Crossley is the pianist with the London Sinfonietta and the recording was made in 1988.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Apollon musagète, Concerto in D, Cantata. Apollon musagète, "Apollo, leader of the muses" is a rather undramatic ballet depicting the birth of Apollo who is then visited by three muses. It was composed in 1927-28 in neo-classical or perhaps neo-baroque style. It certainly recalls the ballets of Lully. The original commission was $1,000! The Concerto in D was commissioned by Paul Sacher for the Basel Chamber Orchestra and composed in 1946. The Cantata dates from 1951-52. The texts are anonymous fifteenth and sixteenth century English poems from a collection given Stravinsky by W. H. Auden (edited by him and Norman Pearson). This recording was made in 1990 with the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra. The Cantata is with the London Sinfonietta and Chorus. How's the playing? Excellent as always.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex. The work is billed an "opera/oratorio" and it is performed in both versions, as a concert oratorio or staged as an opera. The libretto was written in French and translated into Latin. The narrator's introductions are in the language of the country where the performance is held--in this case they are in French. The story is after Sophocles tragedy of the king of Thebes who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. The work is in Stravinsky's neo-classical style, composed in 1927. This recording was made in 1991 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The Wikipedia article is not very useful as it is too short and very uninformative about the work. The review in Gramophone is probably more informative. Oedipus Rex is a strange and strangely compelling work.
    • Toru Takemitsu: To the Edge of Dream (guitar and orchestra), Folios (guitar), Toward the Sea (alto flute and guitar), 12 Songs for Guitar (transcriptions by Toru Takemitsu), Vers, l'arc en ciel, Palma (guitar, oboe d'amore, orchestra). This disc is the only one in the box that I purchased when it was released in 1991. That was because of the guitarist, John Williams, and the composer. I barely knew who Esa-Pekka Salonen was. In any case, fine collection of Takemitsu's compositions for guitar with the added treat of his transcriptions ranging from Gershwin to the Beatles. The orchestra is the London Sinfonietta. Lovely recording, of course.
    • Henri Tomasi: Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, André Jolivet: Concertino for Trumpet, String Orchestra and Piano, Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra No. 2. Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, Philharmonia Orchestra. The recording dates from 1985. Spectacular trumpet playing of these French concertos.
    • A Nordic Festival. Hugo Alfvén: Swedish Rhapsody no. 1, Jean Sibelius: Valse triste, Edvard Grieg: Sigurd Jorsalfar (3 orchestral pieces), Hugo Alfvén: Vallflickans dans, Jón Leifs: Geysir, Carl Nielsen: Maskarade, Armas Järnefelt: Berceuse, Jean Sibelius: Finlandia. This collection of familiar and popular Scandinavian music for orchestra was recorded in 1990 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It is like a selection of encores to the box as a whole. And quite a nice one.

    General observations

    Esa-Pekka Salonen is not only a very musical conductor and one that is particularly good at challenging repertoire, he is also a real workhorse conductor capable of handling a large number of difficult pieces in a short time. In the two years 1987 to 1988 he recorded the Messiaen album of Des canyons aux étoiles and the two shorter pieces for piano and winds, the Nielsen Symphony No. 2, the Symphony No. 5 and excerpts from Masquerade, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the Nielsen Violin Concerto, an album of Richard Strauss with the Metamorphosen and some shorter works, two Stravinsky ballets (The Firebird and Jeu de cartes), an album of concertante music by Stravinsky including the Capriccio for piano and orchestra, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments and the Movements for piano and orchestra! As he was born in 1958, this was all when he was twenty-nine and thirty years old. No wonder he looks so young on the covers.

    The composers he particularly focuses on include Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, Györgi Ligeti, Claude Debussy, Bela Bartók, Witold Lutoslawski, Gustav Mahler, and Jean Sibelius (though a bit less than one would expect). Composers he entirely avoids, at least in this collection: Beethoven, Mozart and, except for one disc of transcriptions, Bach. I suspect the most likely reason was that, as a young conductor, his primary interest was to find repertoire that he could put his individual stamp on. With the heavily-trodden repertoire of the three great masters, there is not a whole lot that a young conductor can bring to the interpretation that hasn’t already been done. He has recorded very, very little Shostakovich and not much more Prokofiev so one wonders if he just feels no empathy with that music.

    One of the things I enjoyed most about this collection was the way each disc was organized as a short concert in itself. The combinations were always stimulating and internally consistent.

    For our envoi, here is Salonen conducting the Rite of Spring with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:

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