Composers: Esa-Pekka Salonen 
Compositions: Cello Concerto
Performers: Yo-Yo Ma vc, Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Catalogue Number: Sony 19075928482

The Finnish conductor and composer, Esa-Pekka Salonen, has often been interested in the idea that music is the creative tension between its organic and mechanical elements. He was written that he thinks “musical expression is bodily expression, there is no abstract cerebral expression in my opinion. It all comes out of the body.” Music for Salonen, therefore, is deeply and essentially physical; approaching composition as an exercise in thought and ideology is the wrong way forward. His Cello Concerto, co-commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Barbican Centre, and the Elbphilharmonie, is an example of this philosophy.

This is Salonen’s third concerto, the first two being for piano and violin respectively, and is dedicated to Yo-Yo Ma, who is the soloist in this release and has performed the premiere performances of the piece. This immaculate world premiere recording was made in 2018 at the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, with Ma and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Salonen himself.

At just over half an hour, the composition broadly adheres to a traditional three-movement fast–slow–fast concerto form, but there is much variety across the work. The first movement resembles “…a simple thought emerging from a complex landscape”, while the second movement features rich, evocative textures, including some subtle electronics and a wonderful duet between the cello and alto flute. The third movement concludes with an acrobatic solo section and a heaving orchestral mass that “burns itself out gently”, as the composer describes it in a short essay accompanying the disc.

Salonen’s soundscape characteristically morphs from orchestral chaos to solo beauty, with all manner of moods and colours throughout. It features some truly original and imaginative writing, although there are some clear influences from a range of 20th-century and contemporary composers from Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen to John Adams.

Without relying on novelty and parlour tricks, the concerto places formidable demands upon the soloist, and Ma is in top form here. Salonen writes that “virtuosity doesn’t limit itself to the mechanics of playing an instrument. A true virtuoso can also capture the beauty and expression in the quietest moments, to fill near-stasis with life through a musician’s imagination and ability to communicate.” The composer has been given a gift in Ma, who is one of the great musical communicators of our time.