Twenty-two years after his death, Frank Zappa is as much of an enigma as ever. In his day, he was a polyglot rocker who drew on everything from 1950s doo-wop to free-form jazz, electronic sound and orchestral scoring. Much of his work married mature, even advanced music to lyrics that were either on-target parodies or frustratingly puerile. Yet even his most cringeworthy texts were strangely fascinating, because Zappa skewered not only easy establishment targets, but also the attitudes and behaviors of his audience and his musical colleagues. He was the misanthrope’s misanthrope.
But there was another Zappa—a self-schooled but serious composer of ambitious contemporary classical scores. Where rockers with symphonic aspirations typically mirror the Romantic mainstream, Zappa approached his works with a truly contemporary sensibility, shaped by his devotion to the experimental works of Edgard Varèse. He was partial to percussion-heavy ensembles, shifting meters and expressive dissonance, and his efforts struck a chord with classical musicians: Kent Nagano, Pierre Boulez and the enterprising Ensemble Modern are among those who recorded his scores.
Add Esa-Pekka Salonen to the list. The latest addition to the Zappa classical discography, “200 Motels (The Suites),” due out on Friday from Zappa Records/UME, offers a reconfigured and generally clarifying version of Zappa’s sprawling 1971 rock opera, captured in a 2013 live performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Mr. Salonen leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and a handful of rock musicians and vocalists, including the composer’s daughter Diva Zappa.
Zappa’s “200 Motels” has a fraught history. Composed over five years, it follows a touring rock band to the fictional town of Centerville, in sequences of rock songs and long orchestral stretches. Centerville and its residents are heartily belittled, as are the band, rock journalists, the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll spirit, and Zappa himself, in his alternate persona as a serious composer.
Zappa filmed the work in 1971, with performances by Ringo Starr,Theodore Bikel, the new-music soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Zappa’s band. When the increasingly chaotic production was halted after a week, with only a third of the script shot, Zappa cobbled together a revised version from the available footage. It clearly fell short of his vision, and most viewers regarded the surrealistic film as incomprehensible, although the soundtrack album shed some light on the plot.
On Mr. Salonen’s recording, most of the score’s straightforward rock songs are shed in favor of Zappa’s orchestral music. The order of scenes is changed, and short sections are combined within more expansive movements. Generally, these alterations impose a narrative firmness and theatricality that had been elusive in the original. In particular, Zappa’s parody of contemporary composers in “The Pleated Gazelle” benefits greatly, as does the closing “Strictly Genteel.”
Mr. Salonen draws finely polished, spirited performances from his forces, and if this version occasionally lacks the gritty, nervous energy of the original, the gains in cohesiveness make that a worthy trade-off. More crucially, the recording rescues one of the messier works in the Zappa canon.
Mr. Kozinn writes about music.