Salonen: Cello Concerto (CD Review)

Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic. Sony Classical 19075928482.

By Karl W. Nehring

Esa-Pekka Salonen is perhaps best known to American music fans as a conductor. He led the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1989 through 2009  (their recordings of Debussy and Mahler are highly recommendable productions) and will take over the musical directorship of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 2020. But Salonen is also a composer. In this new Sony Classical release he is featured in both roles, leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic and superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for whom the piece was written, in a performance of his Cello Concerto. This is the world première recording of the work, captured by the Sony engineers from a live concert performance on February 8, 2018.

The cover illustration depicts some sort of space rock surrounded by a cloud of smaller pieces of space debris. This mysterious space object (shades of Weather Report's Mysterious Traveler) is illustrated again from different perspectives on the cover and centerfold of the booklet included with the CD, in which Salonen discusses the origins and conceptual/compositional framework of the piece. The significance of the space rock and its attendant cloud is explained by Salonen as he writes of the first movement: "I imagined the solo cello line as a trajectory of a moving object in space being followed and emulated by other lines/instruments/moving objects. A bit like a comet's tail… Sometimes the imitating cloud flies above the cello, sometimes in the very same register."

One of the fascinating aspects of the concerto is the way Salonen varies the ways by which the three movements begin. The first movement (the three movements are denoted simply as I, II, and III, with no descriptors) opens right in the middle of things, as though the orchestra had already started playing and only then were the microphones switched on. After a couple of minutes of whirling and swirling notes from the orchestra, the cello begins to play, and then after a couple of more minutes, Maestro Ma truly brings the cello part into the musical forefront with some beautifully lyrical passages – mysterious, plaintive, shifting lines that are at times echoed the flute, other times by the oboe, evoking true senses of wonder and affording credibility to Salonen's description of an object in space accompanied by its fellow travelers.

Yo-Yo Ma
In contrast to the twittering opening of the first movement, the second movement begins with an emphatic orchestral chord. The cello part in this movement also contrasts with those of the previous movement, as Ma leans harder into the strings, beginning slowly in the lower registers at first but then shifting upward toward the middle and higher registers and faster speed as the movement progresses and the overall energy of the music increases, at times joined by an alto flute that swirls around the cello melody and contributes to the imagery of celestial travelers.

The third movement begins without a clear break from the second as Ma plays a solo part, again in the lower register to begin. He is then joined by various percussion instruments, bringing a much different texture from what has gone before. In the liner notes, Salonen writes of a section where he "imagined the orchestra as some kind of gigantic lung, expanding and contracting first slowly, but then accelerating to a point of mild hyperventilation which leads back to the dance-like material." (Hmmmm – at any rate, I can see why the folks at Sony decided to go with the comet rather than the giant lung for the cover illustration…) After some final frenzied interaction between hand drums and cello, the movement and of course the concerto as a whole ends with Ma climbing as high as he can reach into the treble notes of the cello, ending with what Salonen describes as "a stratospherically high B-flat, two centimeters to the left of the highest note of the piano."

The effect of this ending is haunting, reinforcing the mental imagery of the comet traveling somewhere in deep space. It is as if we suddenly saw it coming, delighted in watching it and its accompanying cloud of debris as it made its way across our field of vision, only to see it travel out of sight as it continued its seemingly endless cosmic journey.

I do hope I have not made this recording sound in any way forbidding. It is not. If anything, it is highly engaging. Rest assured it is not atonal. No, Salonen is not Tchaikovsky, but he has worked some beautifully lyrical passages into this intriguing composition. In addition, the quality of the recording (captured live in concert) is first-class. The only negative I can see about this CD is its length, which is barely over 35 minutes. I hope that does not dissuade anyone from giving this disc a listen – this is a truly rewarding recording of a truly wonderful piece.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa