Although it has three movements, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s piano concerto (2007) is all of a piece in tempo and tonality: it’s all fast and mostly consonant. Yet the movements have different characters. I think of them as places: the first a dark wood, the second a sunlit clearing, the third a nighttime feast complete with bonfires and fireworks.
How can I describe this music? Salonen’s approach is quite unlike that of any other composer. Like all the composers I really like, he’s a maximalist, crowding his compositions with motifs, events, and color; yet he does go for ostinati, whether arpeggios or tremolos, and his rhythms, while varied, are insistent. He favors thickness over thinness, but lightness over heaviness, which is a difficult needle to thread. His textures are liquid; his hues are bright; his lines are rarely murky, yet they shimmer rather than define. While brilliant and virtuosic, his pieces aren’t ostentatious. The piano concerto is structurally messy, but that’s one of the things I like about it—it can’t be wrapped up in a neat package without a lot spilling out. It’s like real life, in that sense, or like a good novel. And that’s what a piano concerto, in my opinion, should aspire to.
Why am I writing about piano concerti? More than symphonies, more than sonatas, more than string quartets, concertos tend to be unruly, and piano concerti are more so than those for other instruments. (I admit that they’re not as unruly, as a whole, as chamber concerti, but there really aren’t that many of those.) Pianos are not louder than orchestras, but they can be pretty loud, and the battles between the two forces can be fierce. This gives concerti a different kind of drama than other forms of classical music, a kind of drama more like a novel than a play or poem. Salonen’s concerto is unruly too, though hardly as unruly as, say, Ligeti’s or Prokofiev’s—it’s far more polite. But it’s not gentle. Even if Salonen isn’t as out-of-control as Ligeti and Prokofiev, he likes his spices strong.
The piece begins with a kind of tumbling percussion and massed strings engaged in a dissonant quarrel (this dissonance evaporates after a while). But then they fade, the piano comes in, and the mood changes. The piano part is at first reminiscent of Messiaen, but with fewer extremes; when the woodwinds and brass come in, light glimmers through the trees. I could go on and describe the rest of the piece in this way, but would that be a good thing? I take no joy in plot summaries.
The recording I’ve been listening to over and over is that of Yefim Bronfman, accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Salonen’s direction.
You can read Salonen’s fascinating program notes here.