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Esa-Pekka Salonen

Publisher: Chester Music

Piano Concerto (2007)
New York Philharmonic / Yefim Bronfman
Chester Music Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
35 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Programme Note
Esa-Pekka Salonen Piano Concerto (2007)
Movement I

The movement opens with slow, rather solemn music in dotted rhythms scored for string orchestra, three piccolos, low woodwind and percussion. I imagined this music as a modern version of some very formal (imaginary) slow French court dance from the Baroque era.

The piano enters. The first phrases are pensive and tentative, almost as if improvising: the piano is creating its own language and grammar here. Sudden Timpani beats propel the piano into a faster, flickering kind of texture accompanied by the harp and the vibraphone as well as some wind soloists. The Timpani leads again to the next phase, where the harp, two clarinets and two bassoons play a variation of the previous piano music. This is the formal principle throughout the first movement: a continuous variation.

The piano enters. A playful dialogue between the soloist and woodwinds.

Orchestral Interlude I: A machine-like variation of the first piano solo.

The piano enters again. This time the piano line grows out of the orchestra almost imperceptibly. This episode is essentially a variation of the opening slow dance music. The persistent accompaniment figure in the left hand is going to be very important later on.

Orchestral Interlude II: A short passage for low woodwinds. Elegance of very large animals.

Now the pianist joins the solo viola as a duo partner. This music is constructed as a canon. The low woodwinds interrupt the duet suddenly. The little motif in the left hand earlier has grown into grotesque fast music here.

A fantasy on the note D. All movement rotates around the axis of this note.

Orchestral Interlude III: A fast tutti variation of the viola-piano duet.

The piano plays a new variation of the opening solo passage: forte fortissimo, with a grand romantic sweep, accompanied by arpeggios in the strings. This music slows down into a Coda, where the saxophone plays an endless, slow melody. The piano accompanies together with three piccolos. The music relaxes into a peaceful ending.

Movement II

This movement begins with a piano cadenza, which is virtuosic, but somehow nostalgic in character. The woodwinds and the French horn join one by one, and lead to

Synthetic Folk Music with Artificial Birds I (My working title)
I imagined a post-biological culture, where the cybernetic systems suddenly develop an existential need of folklore. Composing intelligence creates music that somehow relates to an area that long time ago was called the Balkans. All this is accompanied by bird-robots. A Homage to Stanislaw Lem.

A lyrical section follows after the sci-fi nightmare fades away. The piano plays a simple melody against a background of muted string ornaments. A few lonely birdcalls from the distance.

Persistent Timpani beat leads to

Synthetic Folk Music with Artificial Birds II. This time the birds are mostly in the piano part.

The music grows into a tutti section where the full orchestra plays the melody originally heard in the piano a while ago. The piano plays a texture derived from the opening cadenza. After culmination, the movement fades away very quickly.

Movement III

This is a kind of Rondo, where the recurring idea is not a theme, but a chain of five chords. These chords carry their own scale each, and therefore their own melody (or rather melodic possibilities)

The movement begins with an etude for the left hand, accompanied by a very lightly scored orchestra. A polyrhythmic juxtaposition of three notes against four becomes increasingly important. This virtuosic, kaleidoscopic music takes a breath for the first time when the D pedal point idea from the 1st Movement returns in a different guise.

Fast music returns. The rhythmic patterns become more irregular in this section. We hear constantly new metamorphoses of the five chords in the piano part.

A short lyrical section featuring solo strings continues into the third phase of the Rondo. The polyrhythmic conflict is brought to a crisis. The Timpani and drums restore the pulse violently. An accelerando leads to a virtuosic Coda. At the very end the opening music of the 1st movement returns, triumphantly.

My Piano Concerto is dedicated to my friend Yefim Bronfman, one of the great musicians of our time.

Other comments by Esa-Pekka Salonen on his Piano Concerto:

I think the latest of the “great” piano concertos — I don’t mean their quality, but rather whether they have entered the repertoire — were Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto, Bartók’s Third, and the Ravel piano concertos. Since then few new piano concertos have made it to the circuits. Therefore the successful models are relatively far away, historically speaking, so there is no direct model one can even think of using. In the 1970s and ’80s quite often the solo concerto was treated as some sort of socio-drama, with a formal emphasis on the relationship between the individual and the masses, so to speak. While this approach produced some incredible masterpieces — such as Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto — I personally find it to be slightly dated at this point. Further, with the piano it is difficult, because of the sheer number of notes that it can play at any one time (as opposed to a violin), so it can be more than one individual. So this sociological metaphor is not very useful. Having said that, obviously my music — as is everyone’s — is influenced by music I have loved and learned.

I was fascinated by the idea of having a completely flexible dynamic between the piano soloist and the ensemble, so that it continuously zooms in and out, very clearly assuming different roles as the piece progresses. The piano is the principal voice, but at times it plays a chamber music role, as a duo partner with a solo instrument from the orchestra; at others the piano becomes a part of the larger ensemble, and at still others it plays completely alone — and everything in between. I was most fascinated with this gradual and smooth transition between different stations.

  • Ensemble
    Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
    Yefim Bronfman
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Deutsche Grammophon:
Cast in three parts lasting about 33 minutes, the concerto is the kind of postmodernist contraption few besides John Adams compose these days: unabashedly grand in scale and rhetoric, an obstacle course for virtuoso pianist and orchestra, Romantic in gesture if up-to-the-minute in harmonic design... The overarching impression is a thrill ride of almost unremitting physical energy. Yet the exhilaration factor has less to do with sheer propulsion than the accumulation and release of multilayered detail. I found it a knockout.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune,19/04/2008
Quirky, emotional, edgy, cumulative and skillfully scored...
Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times,17/04/2008
The solo part is bold and virtuosic while the hefty orchestral writing around it certainly suggests a serious musical argument...
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,01/08/2007
It is music of non-stop virtuosity - as much for the orchestra as for the soloist - and non-stop action. There are no oases, no pauses for refreshment in this 33 minute journey through a vast, constantly evolving musical landscape.
Hilary Finch, The Times,01/08/2007
Gleefully motoric outer movements contrasted with a lyrical central section, which sang out in homage to Rachmaninov.
Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard,31/07/2007
this concerto scarcely ever stops for breath as jazz riffs, neoclassical techniques, synthetic folklore, bird calls à la Messiaen, and at least one big Rachmaninoff tune -- the soaring unison passage that ends the middle movement -- eagerly clamor for attention. In the end, though, it seems clear that Salonen was determined to recapture the freewheeling, exuberant spirit rather than the letter of the great 19th-century piano concertos the world knows, loves, and continues to prefer. That he has succeeded, digests such myriad influences so skillfully, and still manages to retain an individual voice is something of a miracle, one that Bronfman’s fire-eating virtuosity at the keyboard definitely helped make come to pass. Since Philharmonic audiences seldom welcome a new piece so enthusiastically, Salonen’s Piano Concerto can definitely be said to have been launched on its global travels in high style.
Peter G. Davis, Musical,06/02/2007
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