Salonen: LA Variations; Five Images After Sappho; Giro; Mania; Gambit

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: LA Variations; Five Images After Sappho; Giro; Mania; Gambit
PERFORMER: Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Anssi Karttunen (cello); London Sinfonietta, Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
That Esa-Pekka Salonen should turn out to be a virtuoso orchestrator is no surprise – after all, he’s had ten years experience as principal conductor of a virtuoso American orchestra. The surprise is that from intellectually narrow modernist beginnings he should have matured into such an uncomplicatedly direct, Romantically open-hearted composer. Five Images After Sappho has modernist roots – Lutoslawski (again unsurprisingly, since Salonen has been an outstanding Lutoslawski conductor), possibly even Boulez; although the full-bodied sensuousness and soaring lyrical beauty of these settings, plus the occasional hints of a modern American populist accent, would probably make Boulez’s toes curl. I loved it, though, and if I wasn’t entirely convinced by the cello-concerto Mania (parts of it sound rather like frantic jogging on the spot) or by the reworked, much-resimplified Giro, there’s still plenty to savour along the way. LA Variations and Gambit, on the other hand, are pure, brilliant entertainment – glitzy and garish one moment, stunningly refined the next, and always brimming over with energy. Unsurprisingly, Salonen secures performances to match, and the recordings serve the playing – and Dawn Upshaw’s sweetly seductive singing – to something like perfection. Stephen Johnson