“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.”
This is Salonen’s own description of the opening movement of his spellbinding Cello Concerto. And indeed, the work begins with a quiet orchestral chaos (quite a paradox!), the soloist entering delicately, soaring above the nocturnal canopy. This sets the mood for the first movement, which is full of lyrical passages, a continuous interplay between winds, celesta and glockenspiel along with icy strings. It is a mysterious and elegant opening, complete with impressionistic touches and lush orchestration.
A bang kicks off the middle movement, an immense chord, like “a wedge-formed cloud” as the composer comments in the liner notes. But this cloud gradually dissipates and leaves room to the soft melodic lines of the cello. And notice the plural here: Salonen uses electronic repetitions from the solo cello (taken live), creating a dreamy, ethereal, nearly transparent doppelganger that seems to be in orbit, suspended in the night sky. It is a chilling effect, especially as recorded antiphonically here. The ghostly interjections of the flute enhance the mystery. And it is towards the end when quiet string glissandos become louder to mimic bird song or falling comets (your take) when the music reaches its climax. It is an almost Rautavaarian moment, full of ecstatic bliss.
The final movement couldn’t be more of a contrast. The soloist starts off persistently, leading to a series of accelerandos that introduce the exotic percussion: congas and bongos creating a “rhythmic mantra” to quote the composer once more. There is a lot of wild movement going on here, the orchestra playing full force with a strong rhythmic drive. The solo cello, often accompanied by frenetic percussion, is so virtuosically demanding, that it makes you wonder how on earth Yo-Yo Ma manages to pull this off. As the journey approaches its end, the dancing rhythms accelerate even more, and I can only but describe what follows as a stellar orgasm: the cello starts climbing into the higher sphere with some phenomenal high notes from the soloist and, when you expect the tension to be released, the cello goes even higher reaching an insane high B flat. When the very climax is finally reached, the music retreats smoothly, the string glissandos slowing everything down and the sounds fade out naturally.
Salonen’s Cello Concerto is a highly rewarding, accessible piece despite its technical difficulties from soloist and orchestra. In fact, in the present recording (one wishes more of Salonen’s works were included on this 35min CD) the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma are impressive throughout. Let’s hope this great work will form part of the repertoire – substantial contemporary works like Salonen’s need to be heard more widely.