At the beginning of this month, Sony Classical released a 61-CD box set of all of its recordings made by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Most of these are recordings made with three ensembles that figured significantly in his career. The earliest of these was the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he served as Principal Conductor from 1984 to 1995; and twelve of the CDs account for recordings made with that ensemble. Curiously, 1984 was also the year in which Salonen made his conducting debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he would eventually be named Music Director in 1992 and hold that post until 2009. 23 of the CDs in the box involve recordings made with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Salonen is now Conductor Laureate. Following that tenure, fourteen of the CDs were made with the Philharmonia Orchestra, where Salonen has been Principal Conductor since 2008.
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia at the Apple store in Berlin (photograph by Louisa Dedalus, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
As was the case with my recently completed effort to account for the 70 CDs in the Deutsche Grammophon box Karl Böhm: The Operas, a collection of this size cannot really be accounted for in a single article. Similarly, I do not feel that much can be gained by trying to organize individual articles on the basis of the progress of Salonen’s career. Instead, my preference is again to make a roughly historical account of the contents of the Sony collection.
Such an approach will involve a somewhat richer set of categories than those applied to the Böhm collection. Here are the category labels I have chosen as a “working set.” I am sure there will be those eager to contest my approach to category-formation. However, like that fabled centipede, I did not want to find myself frozen in place, because I could not figure out which leg(s) to move first. So, with a somewhat take-it-or-leave-it rhetorical stance, I present the following category labels along with the number of CDs associated with each of them:
- Toward the 20th century: 11 CDs
- Early 20th century: 19 CDs
- Later 20th-century tonality: 5 CDs
- Post-Schoenberg: 14 CDs
- Nordic preferences: 16 CDs
Note that the numbers add up to 65. This is because there are CDs that cross the category boundaries I have arbitrarily set. Note, also, that anything earlier than the twentieth century gets comparatively little attention, much of which shows up in the “Nordic preferences” category. By the same count several Nordic composers, including Salonen himself, have been placed in the “Post-Schoenberg” category, simply because my personal opinion is that the influence of Arnold Schoenberg and those who followed him is greater than that of any “Nordic roots.” Finally, I appreciate that there may be some who object (perhaps even rabidly) to some of the intra-category relations that arise, such as that of Schoenberg having to share the same category with Igor Stravinsky. Nevertheless, this is the way in which I have decided to stake out the territory; and I shall now begin with that first category of works leading up to the tumultuous times of the first decades of the twentieth century.
Right off the bat, this raises one of those issues of intra-category relations. Because the collection is ordered alphabetically by the names of the composers (with a few problems arising from CDs with works by more than one composer), the very first composer in the alphabetical ordering is Johann Sebastian Bach. However, the title of the album when it was originally released was Bach Transcriptions; and, while the “historically-informed” set may be driven up the wall by much (if not all) of the album, Salonen definitely needs to be considered in terms of his taste in transcribers.
Given that this recording was made in Los Angeles, it should not surprise anyone that the one transcriber of two selections made a name for himself in Los Angeles that had a lot to do with his partnership with Walt Disney in the production of Fantasia. That transcriber was Leopold Stokowski; and the album actually begins with the transcription of the BWV 565 organ toccata and fugue in D minor, the very first music to be performed in Fantasia. In the reviews he wrote for New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson often wrote about Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. He would invariably remind readers that Stokowski began as an organist and tended to conduct as if he were at an organ bench, dealing with the different families of instruments as if they were organ stops. Salonen seems to affirm this approach; and he knows how to play up its merits, not only in BWV 565 but also in the BWV 578 “little” organ fugue in G minor. Furthermore, by taking away all of the Fantasia imagery, the attentive listener can focus more easily on what Stokowski was doing in making these transcriptions; and, if the result does not sound like “pure Bach,” one can still both identify and enjoy its own characteristic merits.
At the other extreme we have Anton Webern’s orchestration of the six-part fugue in the BWV 1079 collection The Musical Offering. I do not call this a transcription because Bach wrote this fugue, which he called “Ricercar,” on six separate lines with no indication of instrumentation. Nevertheless, Webern paid little attention to how Bach had sorted out the six voices of his fugue. His orchestration was conceived on a phrase-by-phrase (if not note-by-note) basis. If Stokowski’s approach was inspired by playing the organ, Webern went beyond the limitations of an organist being able to play and change stops at the same time. However, if the sonorities themselves are unorthodox, the music itself is endowed with a rhetoric that is just as lush as Stokowski’s (or, for that matter, Webern’s early compositions before his move into atonality).
Webern’s teacher Schoenberg is also represented with an orchestration of the BWV 552 prelude and fugue in E-flat major that frame Bach’s third Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) volume, the one written explicitly for organ performance. The author of the Wikipedia page for Clavier-Übung III describes Schoenberg’s effort as a “recomposition,” perhaps because Schoenberg’s score included percussion. Schoenberg created this arrangement in 1928; and, interestingly enough, its first performance the following year was conducted by Webern. (Webern’s own approach to Bach’s fugue would not be completed until 1935.)
When we consider Stokowski, Schoenberg, and Webern collectively, we can appreciate how each of them had his own ideas about how to transplant Bach’s music into the twentieth century. In other words this really is music about moving “toward the 20th century!” On the other hand the other two transcriptions on this CD almost feel as if they are hanging onto the nineteenth century for dear life. In the case of Edward Elgar (the BWV 537 organ fantasia and fugue in C minor), this should not be surprising. On the other hand the CD concludes with a “suite” compiled by Gustav Mahler by selecting movements from two of Bach’s own orchestral suites (BWV 1067 in B minor and BWV 1068 in D major) and “recomposing” them in a spirit not that different from Schoenberg but with far more retrogressive results.
If this were the only way in which Mahler were represented in this box, I would say that he had been unjustly treated. Fortunately, Salonen is far kinder to Mahler in his approach to original compositions. The box includes both the third and fourth symphonies and the orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. The third symphony is one of the more imposing “monsters” in the Mahler canon. Its first movement is probably the longest single movement that Mahler ever wrote. Indeed, the score organizes the symphony into two parts, the first of which consists only of the first movement, while the second then accounts for the remaining five movements. Most concert performances take an extended (and well-needed) pause between these two parts.
Salonen is never daunted by the demands imposed by this symphony. As a result, the performance of the entire piece, which requires two CDs, is a thoroughly absorbing account, which is sure to please anyone who is serious about listening to the Mahler canon. The other Mahler selections also have merits, although I have to say that Plácido Domingo is far from my first choice for the high-voice songs in Das Lied von der Erde!
Lest one think that Salonen has little respect for music that is “too old,” I have to say that the one CD of Joseph Haydn was more enjoyable than the pessimist in me would have anticipated. The three symphonies included on the album, numbers 82 (in C major), 78 (in C minor), and 22 (in E-flat major) from the first Hoboken volume, are performed by the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra. In each case Salonen knows just how to scale down his resources and use them to the best rhetorical advantage. These are selections through which one can appreciate not only Haydn’s capacity for invention but also his ability to season that capacity with wit.
The attentive listener also gets a highly satisfying share of good old-fashioned nineteenth-century piano virtuosity in this portion of the collection. One CD has Emanuel Ax playing both of Franz Liszt’s piano concertos; and another has Yefim Bronfman playing the two most frequently performed concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Opus 18 in C minor and Opus 30 in D minor. Both soloists are performing with the Philharmonia Orchestra; and all four accounts serve up just the right combination of flamboyant rhetoric and disciplined execution.
Indeed, the only composer that does not fare particularly well in this segment is Richard Strauss. To his credit Salonen steers away from the “usual suspects” of the tone poems or the waltz excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier. On the other hand Salonen’s decision to “flesh out” the sextet that opens Capriccio with his own arrangement for the full strings of the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra manages to lose much of the transparency of the original version. Similarly, Salonen never seems to “get” the interplay of the 23 solo voices in “Metamorphosen.” (Herbert von Karajan, on the other hand, not only “got it” but could even beef it up with a larger string section!) However, this is a single disc in a sub-collection of eleven; so there is no reason to worry that Strauss is not the “magnet” that will draw listening to the Salonen canon.