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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Symphonic Dances. Hommage à Uuno Klami (2001)
Symphony No. 11 for six percussionists and orchestra (1997-98)
Kroumata Percussion Ensemble
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Recorded January 2002 (Symphonic Dances) February 2002 (Symphony) at the Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland DDD
BIS BIS-CD-1336 [60:09]


The story behind the composition of Aho’s Symphonic Dances is almost as fascinating as the music itself. In 1943 it was suggested to Uuno Klami that he write a ballet based around themes from the Finnish national epic poem ‘The Kalevala’. The stage designer behind the idea, Regina Backberg, was promised by Klami that work would commence in earnest in late 1944 with Klami claiming that he had already notated a number of initial sketches and ideas. The promised score failed to materialise and the early sketches received no further attention from the composer throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. The reason behind the apparent apathy on the part of Klami was a lack of enthusiasm for the project by Finnish National Opera’s head choreographer George Gé, who felt that the production would prove too difficult to bring to fruition.

Consequently it was not until 1957 that Klami turned to the ballet once more, this time prompted by a competition organised by the Wihuri Foundation. The result was Whirls, with which Klami won the ballet section of the competition with his piano score of the first act. Yet in spite of this success the work’s progress continued to cause Klami difficulty and although a second act did appear in 1959, a series of cancelled premieres followed as a result of the composer’s inability to finish the project. Subsequently he split the existing music up into two ballet suites and thus the work remained an unfulfilled project, falling into neglect after the composer’s death in 1961.

It was in the early 1990s that a suggestion was first made to Kalevi Aho that he should compose the third act of Whirls. Once again however nothing came of the project until 2000 when the original stage and costume designs for the ballet were uncovered amongst the possessions of the late Regina Backberg. Aho was subsequently commissioned and the premiere took the form of a concert performance by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in December 2001.

Aho named his work Symphonic Dances. Hommage à Uuno Klami and based the piece around the names of five dances noted by Klami in the rehearsal score for act one, as being intended for act three. The music however is Aho’s and although he alludes to themes from act one in the Prelude there are few, if any direct quotes. Rather, Aho has allowed himself to be consciously influenced by Klami’s language and period as a means of keeping the atmosphere of the piece as close to the original music as possible.

The result is an extraordinary achievement. A magical fusion of Klami’s own language, coloured and refracted through Aho’s compositional mind. I use the word coloured quite literally, for Aho is a born colourist and orchestral painter who also happens to write with astonishing facility. Although in four movements the final instalment, Dance of the Winds and Fires is by a margin the most substantial as well as being the only movement in which Aho employs electronic colour. The opening Prelude commences with an ascending figure also evident at the close of the entire piece, before the material expands to frame a central dream like sequence that gains animation only to close once again in quiet mystery. The Return of the Flames and Dance grows from its initial flickering, gradually gathering momentum until the flames dance with ever increasing energy to a final explosion of sound. Grotesque Dance begins in lugubrious fashion with timpani and sluggish bassoons until all manner of strange beings and animals emerge from the forest in reference to the original Kalevala story. Listen out for the astonishing tuba solo, Aho’s depiction of the Devil’s Elk! In the final panel the east, west, south and north winds blow in turn, the sound of the wind created electronically whilst the music passes through a gradually emerging waltz passage, ultimately culminating in a huge, appropriately whirling climax of almost apocalyptic proportions as the winds all blow simultaneously. From the chaos emerges a final hymn of consolation in the middle strings, an affirmation of belief in the future that subsides to silence.

One of my discs of 2003 was the BIS recording of Aho’s Symphony No. 3, a magnificent performance by the same Lahti forces as heard here under Osmo Vänskä. As with a good number of the composer’s symphonies, both the third and eleventh introduce an additional instrumental element, in the former a concertante part for violin, in the latter a percussion ensemble conceived specifically with the six percussionists of Swedish ensemble Kroumata in mind. Indeed, the piece was originally intended for premiere in Sweden although as the composer explains in his detailed sleeve note, circumstances ultimately dictated that it received its first performance in Finland. The occasion was the inaugural concert of the Sibelius Hall in Lahti and the composer describes the premiere as one of the "greatest triumphs" of his career as a symphonist.

In purely symphonic terms I do not believe that this work presents Aho at his best. After all, with ten preceding examples to consider he has much to live up to by his own standards. That said there is much to enjoy and as is so often the case with Aho’s music, the attention is rarely allowed to wander. Cast in three movements of roughly similar proportions the first begins in veiled shadows with instrumental textures appearing through the mists. Gradually the music gathers rhythmic energy until an extraordinary central percussion cadenza in which all six percussionists take up castanets. The music that emerges changes character completely, the tempo now fast, the material mercurial and fleet of foot before subsiding into silence. The central movement is effectively one huge accelerando, progressing from the initial soulful melody played by heckelphone to rhythmically driven material in which various drums propel the momentum to a final manic percussive tremolo. In total contrast the final Tranquillo rarely rises above a piano dynamic, a hypnotically haunting movement, the music taking on what the composer describes as an almost ritual quality. Here the percussionists are dispersed around the concert hall, eventually leaving the stage one by one, each playing antique cymbals. It’s worth listening out for the atmospheric sound of six ten-stringed kanteles that are employed around two thirds of the way through the movement.

With the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä on their usual fine form and aided by a recording of admirable transparency and atmosphere, this is a winner of a disc. It also completes another excellent instalment in BIS’s ongoing Complete Aho series, a project the breadth of which most composers can only dream about. Of the two works however it is the mightily impressive Symphonic Dances that wins the day and should not be missed.

Christopher Thomas



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