Next year, Esa-Pekka Salonen steps away from his music directorship at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which will free him up to pursue what has always been his real passion—composition. This disc collects various piano works that Salonen later incorporated into orchestral pieces, brilliantly and tirelessly played by Gloria Cheng. The deft Philharmonic soloist punches out the Finn’s übervirtuoso writing as if it were “Chopsticks.”
In an April talk-back session at Symphony Center, Salonen addressed the question of whether living in America influenced his writing: “If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be alive,” he said. Well, consider him mystically undead. This mostly Frenchy-Euro modernist fare calls to mind the nascent music breeding ground of early-20th-century Paris. In “Mecanisme,” the first of the two halves of “Dichotomie,” Cheng dexterously invokes Debussy études but with a mesmerizing rhythmic drive colored by fluttering accents. Its companion piece, “Organisme,” showcases prickly, experimental rhythmic patterns that steer in the direction of a Cecil Taylor lesson in free jazz.
In a change of pace, Pulitzer winner Steven Stucky’s ideas are presented ephemerally, as in his “Three Little Variations for David,” which contrasts flitting Impressionistic lines with slow Alban Berg–ian ruminations. Stucky and Salonen are both heavily indebted to Lutoslawski; they might have taken a page out of the Pole’s Sonata for Piano, a poetically charged essay that Cheng dispatches with sensitive ease.
Much of this piano music feels nostalgic, referential and pastichelike, rather than something wholly new. But that’s not a knock; as Jean Cocteau asked, “Doesn’t all good music resemble something?”