The Whole Salonen

Salonen is of course one of the major figure in contemporary classical music.


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To be exact, the whole Salonen on Sony (Columbia Records): 61 CDs, all the recordings he made for that label before moving on to Deutsche Gramophon and elsewhere.

I confess, I hadn’t realized he had been that prolific, but after scrolling through the contents, I realized I was already familiar witth a great deal of what’s inside the box, and already have a substantial amount of these recordings in my collection.

Salonen is of course one of the major figure in contemporary classical music. As a conductor he was instrumental in turning the LA Philharmonic into a notable ensemble before he handed over the baton to Gustavo Dudamel, and as a composer he has produced a number of scores that give pleasure, though at least for me they don’t stick in the mind.

But what if you’re reading this and wondering if it’s worth spending $149.98 on (the pre-order price at Amazon as of this writing, though most likely this will drop)? That is a tough question to answer, perhaps more with this than any other of the recent boxed sets from the Columbia back catalog.

If you already have all the Stravinsky, Debussy, and Bartók in your library that you need, then you don’t need this. Same with Nielsen—those composers make up about a quarter of the set, and the recordings here are all good to very good, but there’s not one that is among the finest (IMO). If you don’t have this music, you’ll be satisfied with what is in here. But if you do, you will probably find this superfluous.

However, there is still a lot in here that’s the best you can get. In the standard repertory, the Mahler 4 recording, is about the best there is, as is Messiaen’s Turangalila and Des canyons lux etoiles. The CD with both the Sibelius and Nielsen violin concertos is spectacular.

What is invaluable here is the musical that Salonen was committed to recording and bringing to the public—Ligeti (this is where you will find Le Grand Macabre), Saariaho, Takemitsu, Lindberg. This is as good as it gets. The two Lutoslawski CDs, which include a complete symphony cycle, are essential. The collection of Bernard Herrmann film music is unique and superb.

In the end, this is for fans, I think, of specific composers or the artist himself. To fandom, money is usually no object, but again, this makes for an excellent first step into modern classical music.

Preorder Esa-Pekka Salonen: The Complete Sony Recordings, at Amazon. Release date is May 4.

The Tools of the Apple Composer's Trade

This iPad ad has gotten a lot of notice in classical music circles (which generally like to think of themselves as above crass commercialism while at the same time desperate to find any way to make money).

As an unemployed composer, I don’t begrudge anyone making money of their composing, and Salonen has had an admirable career as both a conductor and composer. While I don’t think he’s the finest contemporary composer, nor in a position to move the tradition into new territories, he produces strong, sometimes excellent music. What you hear in the ad is a fragment of his Violin Concerto, a fine (though not flawless) composition.

The ad does give a look into the compositional process. The conceit that he discovered a tune while whistling as he shaved is best seen as a metaphor, but the the rest is real: coming up with material and working it, working it, working it, until you’ve got something that you can call a composition. For me, the most revealing and true moment is when he’s moving colored post-it notes around a large white board. He’s figuring the best way to make the large-scale structure, and that is not only the essential nuts and bolts of being a composer, but the most difficult part of making any piece with substantial duration.

As for the digital tools he works with, you can see a breakdown with more details and discussion here at the Apple site. He’s using Notion for iPad, and the files he makes he then works with on a computer with the main Notion notation program (I crossgraded to this when the future of Sibelius began to look shaky, and recommend it for all composers—it doesn’t do final engraving as well as Sibelius or Finale, but it is much more useful, and much less confining, for the actual compositional process). When he’s playing a piano keyboard on the iPad, that’s Pianist Pro, which can be used for playing, recording sequences, controller software synthesizers, MIDI, etc., and is a real value. Great for kids to bang away on too.

Baby Playlist, #3

Philip Glass: Orpheé; Portland Opera, Anne Manson

This will certainly please fans of Glass, and is a fascinating example of how his late style is developing. Like La Belle et la Bête, this is an operatic adaptation of an accidental libretto, i.e. the script from a Cocteau movie. It suffers from the same problematic detail, Glass trying to wedge the French phrases, diction and meter into his fairly rigid style, which produces a mix of good vocal music and parts where the singers have to try and spit out the words with compressed desperation. That being said, the music is fine and surprising. After going through a polytonal period, Glass seems to be synthesizing different structural ideas into his usual juxtaposition of phrases, and he’s using a lot of rhythms that are new to him. Large sections sound more than a little like ragtime/cakewalk in a way that is completely charming and adds drama and expression. As always, he quotes himself, even using sections identical to the previous work, but this new piece is mostly fresh and winning, seemingly fine live performances at the Portland Opera from the musicians, the conductor and a large cast, especially Philip Cutlip in the title role, and a good recording.

An interesting interview, but Ainsley is wrong about Cocteau being the first to use special effects in movies. Georges Melies, anyone?

Mahler: Songs with Orchestra ; Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

The final CD in Tilson Thomas’ Mahler cycle is as good as one would expect. Hampson is great in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Graham is even better – deeply expressive, supple, beautiful tone – in the Rückert-Lieder. The set is rounded off with five selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the last track is “Urlicht.” The playing and conducting are beyond exquisite, the SACD sound is like sitting inside the orchestra. SFS Media has produced the finest Mahler cycle, by far – nothing else is in the same league in terms of playing, musicality, expression. One may not agree with the interpretive choices, but there is no Mahler playing like this. The only drawback is the price of the discs, which for Mahler lovers should be no object, but perhaps down the road the producers might repackage it all in a box, for their additional profit and at some savings to the consumer.

Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4, Kanon Pokajanen ; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tönu Kaljuste

Severely beautiful, and very welcome on CD (the only previous recording had been an iTunes download in the DG Concerts series). Pärt is slowly, inexorably exploring Neo-Romanticism, and his Symphony No. 4 is minimalist in the way Bruckner is minimalist, a large, open scale architecture filled with repeated, small scale gestures. The second, “Affannoso” movement is mesmerizing. The make-weight, excerpts from his Kanon Pokajanen , is luminous, but considering ECM is rehashing this material and charging full price for the CD, it’s not a great value.

Steve Reich: Double Sextet, 2×5 ; eighth blackbird, Bang on Can

Reich is always good, and these are his finest pieces since City Life. It’s also the most sheerly enjoyable Reich recording out there. Double Sextet is like Hard-Bop Reich, taking elements of the “blues” of the early masterpiece, Four Organs, filtering it through the developments of Three Tales, and creating a piece of music that swings more than anything I’ve heard from him. It’s extroverted, basically simple but not simplistic. 2×5 is Reich as Prog-Rock and is not far removed from ultra-high order King Crimson; shimmering guitar, razor edge, interlocking complex rhythms, even a drum kit. The former piece won the Pulitzer, the latter may be even better. Great performances and a great CD.

P.S. The baby seemed to dig Mahler and Reich the best.