Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen is an especially cherished figure in Sweden. Early in his career, for a period of 11 years, he was principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and was one of the three people (together with Michael Tydén, managing director of Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen and fellow conductor Valery Gergiev) who set up the annual Baltic Sea Festival, which began 15 years ago. Salonen recently turned 60, and by way of celebrating that milestone the final concert of this year’s Baltic Sea Festival was given over to a celebration and thanksgiving for his contribution to Swedish music-making. Featuring Salonen himself on the podium, he was in every sense the centre of attention.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Arne Hyckenberg

The programme reflected the eclecticism for which Salonen is well known, opening with Heinrich Biber’s Battalia. Composed in 1673 the work, for nine string instruments plus continuo, is renowned for its unusual use of extended performance techniques, including retuned strings, dramatic use of pizzicato and col legno, and foot-stomping. Playing standing up, the members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra attacked these battle-inspired effects with relish, as if they’d been waiting their whole lives for the opportunity to make a racket on stage. This was exacerbated in the second movement, the dissonances of which – created by superimposing different tunes in numerous different keys at once (depicting drunk soldiers) – still sound incredible nearly 350 years on, foreshadowing the music of Milhaud and, above all, Ives.

However, it wasn’t these more outlandish elements of the piece that projected the greatest force. Equally powerful were Biber’s exquisite lyrical lines and deeply poignant harmonies, no less ahead of their time, and his thoughtful approach to structure was striking, particularly the choice not to end with an obvious frenetic finale, but with a melancholic lament. A superb performance, it made one realise how much Battalia’s fame needs to be recalibrated away from being a mere freak of the Baroque era towards a more balanced, holistic appreciation of its remarkable imagination and beauty.

Salonen has always thought of himself principally as a composer, and the concert included one of his most recent compositions, the Cello Concerto, completed last year. Structured in the conventional fast-slow-fast, three-movement form, the work inhabits a fantastical soundworld, imbued throughout with a post-impressionistic lushness (at times, in both orchestration and harmonic movement, strikingly evoking Debussy). Soloist Truls Mørk became, in essence, a traveller through a dream, a landscape of vivid colours constantly shifting yet paradoxically transfixed, almost ecstatic, through which his cello frictionlessly glided. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Battalia
© Arne Hyckenberg

The bold enormity of the second movement suggested a rude awakening, yet after barely a minute Salonen turned the music inward, developing it through a number of intimate, florid duets, including one where Mørk interacted with electronic loops of himself. Having passed through clouds of suspended cymbal shimmer, the work emerged via bird-like glissandi (and further brief allusions to Debussy) to a place of richness and energy, though Salonen prevented letting it loose. Only after an introspective solo cadenza did he take the reins off both soloist and orchestra, culminating in rollicking dances, enhanced through a second soloist playing assorted bongos and congas and irresistible rhythms from maracas. In truth, this last movement was definitely too long, though one was having so much fun that it felt entirely forgivable.

For all the galumphing high jinks of the Cello Concerto, the party didn’t really get into full swing until Salonen got his hands on the final work in the programme, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Salonen always likes to do fresh things with the repertoire, and here he rendered the first movement a game of sorts, initially only letting its energy emerge in bright flashes and flares, only later allowing the orchestra to properly let rip. The most striking thing about this performance was the way it highlighted Beethoven’s most incredible feat: that such a gradual, painstaking composition process could lead to music of total spontaneity, in which ideas would appear and slowly spread as if catching fire (enhanced by the orange lighting behind the stage), and where gear changes would occur seemingly on the whim of Salonen himself, brusquely deciding to take the music somewhere completely different and making little attempt to smooth over the joins.

The conclusion of the symphony to some degree captured the essence of Salonen himself: an unafraid, runaway romp, by now so wild that the music seemed to be almost spilling out of control, teetering on the brink of madness. It’s gloriously exhilarating, risk-taking interpretations like this that have made – and continue to remake – Salonen’s reputation as one of the most radical conductors of our time. Everyone in the Berwaldhallen audience could testify to the fact that, at 60 years old, he’s showing precisely no signs of mellowing.


Simon's press trip to Stockholm was funded by Swedish Radio