Salonen: Cello Concerto; Ravel: Duo Sonata / Altstaedt, Kuusisto, Slobodeniouk, Rotterdam Philharmonic

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Nicolas Altstaedt presents here his version of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s monumental Cello Concerto, originally composed for Yo-Yo Ma, and given its Finnish premiere by the Franco-German cellist under the composer’s direction. In partnership with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, he reveals its full expressive dimension here: ‘The first movement opens with what, in my sketchbook, was called “Chaos to line”’, says Esa-Pekka Salonen. Chaos, a metaphorical comet, a rhythmic mantra with congas and bongos, a wild dance . . . Salonen goes on to say of the third movement: ‘I imagined the orchestra as some kind of gigantic lung, expanding and contracting first slowly, but accelerating to a point of mild hyperventilation which leads back to the dance-like material.’

The coupling is the famous ‘Duo Ravel’ (to give it the original title used at its premiere), which Nicolas Altstaedt and Pekka Kuusisto have been performing and refining ever since 2010, and which it was high time to record.


After listening twice to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto (2016), I had to check the instrumentation before writing about it: piccolo, two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons plus contrabassoon, four trombones, timpani, harp, piano, celeste, 12–12–10–9–6 strings, and electronics. There’s a grunge aura to the fortissimo, outer-space, meandering, modulating opening.

After the “defining” opening, the cello enters—soulful, almost tonal, and lyrical with long-lined modulations, as the orchestra holds the tonal-like center. In all three movements the orchestration reminds me of Ravel’s: delicate and transparent, whatever the size of the ensemble. Imagine: a modern orchestral work without de rigueur bangy percussion! Here it is the sound of the celeste that predominates. When the soloist serves as the mid-range fulcrum, the orchestra expands around it, and vice-versa, giving the structure an integral through-line.

The second movement has a concave shape, with a strong cluttered opening from which the solo cello emerges, flowing to a mid-section dialogue with the alto flute, before bird-like twitters expand to a bed of seagull-like cries (are they string glissandos or electronic?) over growing strings and winds.

The music grows without a break into the kinetic, dance-like final movement. Salonen describes it as “lung music” that swells and exhales repeatedly, as light congas and bongos set the pace.

But what about the performers? I listened twice, and both times Altstaedt was so mesmerizing (photos make him look like Rasputin) that I found it difficult to listen analytically. It’ll take more than a couple hearings for me to “own” the work, despite Altstaedt’s consuming magnetic draw. Slobodeniouk is his hand-in-glove partner. Each movement flows with integrity.

By the time Ravel finished writing the [Duo sonata for violin and cello] in 1922 (at its premiere it was called “Ravel Duo”), his style had reached a major turning point. I’ve had trouble listening to it in the past; this time I tried it with a score, although the violin part is printed separately from the cello part. So, I listened to it movement by movement, first reading one part but focusing my ear on the other instrument, then switching scores (and ears). By first examining the trees, I came to appreciate the forest.

“Appreciate”? That barely touches on the exhilaration and esthetic pleasure Altsteadt and Kuusisto bring as they respond to 1) each other and 2) the expressive center of each movement’s distinct character. (The music is based on a nine-note scale.) The opening Allegro is flowing and lithe. In the tres vif scherzo, the duo grabs hold of the insane pulse; the “harmonic sound set” is somewhat like hearing The Rite of Spring for the first time...

Ravel had fears of the sonata “being assassinated by amateurs.” I’ve never heard it more alive than with Altsteadt-Kuusisto!

--Fanfare (Gil French)

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 11, 2022

  • Catalog Number: ALPHA627

  • UPC: 3760014196270

  • Label: Alpha

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 21st Century

  • Composer: Esa-Pekka Salonen

  • Conductor: Dima Slobodeniouk

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Rotterdam Philharmonic

  • Performer: Nicolas Altstaedt