The composers listed on this CD — a Pole, a Finn and an American — aren't likely to pop into the minds of most lovers of modern music as an inevitable trio: a sort of Mussorgsky/Borodin/Rimsky-Korsakov for our own time. But Steven Stucky, who writes the program notes for this very impressive new CD, sees Esa-Pekka Salonen and himself as sons of Witold Lutoslawski, and considers all of them to have been shaped by a "Debussy-Stravinsky outlook" that includes a "'French' sensitivity to timbre and instrumental gesture [and] a love of order." Be that as it may, there is also a different kind of connection through the pianist Gloria Cheng, who played for Lutoslawski near the end of his life in a concert of his music, and who has premiered music of both Salonen and Stucky. It might be added that Salonen has recorded two CDs of music by Lutoslawski with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conduced a good number of Stucky's works, including world premieres.
The Lutoslawski Sonata is a student work of 1934, when the composer was barely 21. He played it often in public, Stucky tells us, but never published it, and the score was nearly lost because of the devastation of Warsaw during World War II. The 26-minute piece in three movements may have little of the challenging modernism of the mature Lutoslawski, but it's a very pleasing discovery. The opening Allegro is almost startlingly reminiscent of Ravel (who was a living contemporary at the time of composition), with its serene yet brisk melody and ripples of accompanying figures. The Adagio ma non troppo that follows is a superb piece in itself, more somber and halting at first, then more yearning and urgent (but with still a trace of Ravelian serenity), and more surprises along the way but overall beautifully structured. The finale (Allegretto after a short slow introduction), which Stucky suggests is "less mature and less well integrated" than the rest, indeed seems less coherent, though with some striking moments. This Sonata would be a great piece for stumping your friends when you play "Guess the Composer," but it's a lovely, memorable work in itself, and Gloria Cheng plays it with utter commitment, making each detail glow while keeping a forward impulse and an eye on the overall structure.
In contrast to the fairly lengthy Sonata, Cheng offers us two very short suites by Stucky. The David of the Three Little Variations for David is David Zinman, the occasion being the conductor's 65th birthday in 2001, and the theme being "Happy Birthday To You." The first and third variations, less than a minute each, are quirky and playful; the slightly longer "Sognando" ("dreamily") more subtle and poker-faced in disguising the theme in moody arpeggios. The Album Leaves are so titled to suggest the "character pieces" (to quote Stucky again) of the Romantic composers, though I was reminded more of Debussy miniatures. The composer's goal was not to attempt to form a coherent whole but rather to aim for "clarity, pungency, and immediacy" in each "page." This they do very well, while being arranged in the manner of a baroque suite: slow-fast-slow-fast. The Contemplativo, tempo rubato is indeed contemplative, the Meccanico is a 1-minute perpetual-motion piece, the Sereno, luminoso is hushed, and the Presto giocoso is jagged as well as playful. Cheng performs both suites with the commitment one imagines she would give to Chopin or Schumann.
Salonen's portion of the CD begins with Yta II, written in 1985 when he was 27. The title is Swedish for "surface," and this seven-minute work is the second of three solo Ytas (the others are for alto flute and cello respectively). Stucky suggests that the "surface" here is "snowy and icy, and the music reflects a sparkling, crystalline, and sometimes blinding quality," while the composer himself says he was also thinking of a cartoon cat running in mid-air. For me the sound is more like the swarming of insects, but in any case Cheng dashes off the coruscating showers of notes with great flair.
Dichotomie is a longer (17-minute) work from 1999-2000 in two parts: Mécanisme and Organisme. What is this dichotomy between a mechanism and an organism? The composer explains in a lengthy quotation that the first part portrays a machine-like being that is on its way toward becoming human, rather like Pinocchio. The movement has a hammering drive through most of it, but with plenty of variety and a couple of "slow-downs," rather than an endlessly repeated mechanical pulse. I was reminded in places of Stravinsky's piano version of fair music from Petrushka — another story of a puppet with feelings—and of Villa-Lobos' "O Policinello," a piano piece about a doll. As for the "organism," the music is again "very busy on the surface, but it breathes a lot slower and deeper," with more "organic" connections between its sections. Salonen makes an analogy to a "slender willow" swaying gracefully in the wind but returning to its original position. Indeed, Organismeopens as if it were a quieter, dreamier version of Mécanisme, more impressionistic, one might say, but impulsive in its surface flow of notes: more a racing brook, perhaps, than the willow on its shore. Cheng, who premiered the work, plays with all the authority one would expect, clangorous in the first part and graceful in the second. DG is about to release its own performance of Dichotomie with Yefim Bronfman, as a filler for a CD featuring Salonen's recent Piano Concerto, written for Bronfman; it should be interesting to compare performances by those two major artists.
Finally, the disc offers us its most recent composition, Salonen's 2005 Three Preludes, in its world premiere recording (as is the case for the Lutoslawski and Stucky works too). The first, Libellula Meccanica ("mechanical dragonfly" — the third "mechanical" piece on this program), might be thought of as a more contemporary-sounding version of a Debussy "image": a sketch of a dragonfly soaring until it "burns itself out" Icarus-style, according to the composer. The second, Chorale, indeed starts out as a chorale but soon features arabesque moments and is overall even more impressionistic in a post-Debussy way. Salonen calls the concluding Invenzione a due voci "strict two-part piano writing in the tradition of J.S. Bach," but goes on to compare the piece to "looking at a rock under water" hidden by "the wind on the surface of the pond": an impressionistic subject par excellence. The composer says the preludes are like "diary entries," composed during idle moments at airports or in hotel rooms; grouped here, they fit well together in their poetic fantasies.
I've listed and discussed the works in order of birth of composer, but Telarc satisfyingly offers the program with the short Stucky pieces bookending first the Lutoslawski Sonata and then the Salonen works, with the substantial Dichotomie placed just before our sendoff with the playful "Happy Birthday" variations. The recording itself is absolutely first-rate, with the piano always clear and plangent, up front without distortion or that irritating glassy quality — always a danger in percussive keyboard works like some of the Stucky and Salonen pieces — and perfect for the more limpid moments of the Sonata as well.