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Kalevi AHO (b.
Symphony No.5 (1975-1976) [29:05]
Symphony No.7 Insect Symphony (1988) [43:40]
Symphony Orchestra/Max Pommer
rec. 1991. DDD
ONDINE ODE765 [72:45]
Aho is one of today's great composers for orchestra. He is
also one of the most prolific. In March this year he published
his 14th symphony, and in recent months recordings
of his concertos for clarinet (see review),
tuba and contrabassoon (see review)
have been released by BIS to great acclaim here and elsewhere.
first encountered Aho’s music through the superb BIS disc of
Dances and 11th symphony (see review),
and have been delving into the ongoing BIS series at regular
intervals ever since. Aho’s music is unfailingly inventive,
bold, colourful and well constructed. It is not “difficult” for
a listener to appreciate, in the way some contemporary music
can be; nor does it pander to the masses. His influences are,
as one might expect, north European. You can hear echoes of
Shostakovich, Sibelius and his former teacher Rautavaara in
his music, but he is not a derivative composer and his idiom
is highly individual. Once you are familiar with his sound-world,
his is a recognisable voice.
BIS Aho series is a rich and exciting treasure trove and those
with an interest in this gifted composer will already be familiar
with at least some of its delights. Aho’s 5th symphony,
however, has not yet been recorded by BIS and his fans will
want to hear this performance of this powerful work.
5th is a tightly wrought work in a single movement.
Opening with choppy, strident chords from the strings, it is
not long before Shostakovich’s influence is felt, with individual
woodwinds piping up like automata visiting from the score of
the Russian’s fourth symphony. Another Russia reference appears
as a prominent trumpet seems to refract the brass chorale that
opens Tchaikovsky’s fourth. Perhaps my ears are stretching
for that allusion, but this is rich music. The strings and
lower brass broaden out and take a Sibelian turn. There is
chatter and confusion in the upper voices, but the lower ones
chart a consistent course and guide the ear through the mix.
Banal, jaunty half-march tunes sound above a whirling tempest
at the centre of the work. There is some lush string music
too. The overall effect is like that of having two radios on
in the same room at the same time playing different music,
but somehow there is logic and order to the resulting chaos.
Aho includes two saxophones in his orchestra, but it is the
trumpets that are very much to the fore.
Leipzig orchestra plays this music earnestly, but their account
is unsubtle and tends to blare at the climaxes. The unison
passages in the brass test the tuning. That said, this recording
communicates the power of Aho’s conception and should not be
missed by the Finn’s fans. While this remains the only recording
of Aho’s 5th, this Arkiv CD is not its only incarnation.
It has also been licensed by Warner's Finlandia imprint for
its “Meet the Composer - Kalevi Aho” double CD (3984-23405-2),
where it is coupled with selected piano and chamber works.
the premiere recording of the 5th symphony on this
Arkiv CD is the premiere recording of the 7th. Where
the 5th is a concentrated symphonic structure, the
7th is essentially an orchestral suite in six movements,
assembled from Aho’s opera Insect Life. It is a lot
of fun. This is colourful music, by turns portentous, ironic
and just plain silly. The bright and off-kilter second movement, “The
Foxtrot and Tango of the Butterflies”, is jazzy in a lopsided
way, with amorous contributions from the alto saxophone. The
crazy fifth movement, entitled “The Working Music of the
Ants and War Marches I and II”, is full of banalities and
irreverent references the first movement of Mahler’s 6th.
The final movement, “The Dayflies and Lullaby for the Dead
Dayflies”, by contrast, contains some beautiful music.
is plenty of interesting writing for tuba, alto saxophone and “baritone” in
this score. As an aside, the 7th is one of a number
of Aho’s scores to include a part for “baritone horn” – in
fact, all of his symphonies from 6 to 11 do so. What a “baritone
horn”, or in Mahler’s 7th a “tenor horn”, is seems
to change with time and place in the musical world. Fortunately – at
least in my view – Pommer takes “baritone horn” to mean “euphonium”,
and the sound is delightful.
this Leipzig recording is actually very good, it is outclassed
by the competition on BIS (see review).
Vänska’s Lahti Orchestra is more vividly recorded and more
obviously at home with Aho’s idiom. He is, after all, the Lahti
Orchestra’s composer in residence.
the 5th, this recording of the 7th has
a life beyond this Ondine disc, having been licensed from Ondine
by Classica and re-released in the mid-1990s (Classica CL 106).
I do not know if the Classica disc is still available.
is useful to have this coupling restored to the catalogue by
Arkiv’s on demand service, and some will jump at the chance
to acquire this coupling. However, Vänskä's is the better recording
of the 7th and, if you have already bought that disc, the Finlandia
reissue of the 5th will give you some interesting
chamber music couplings and save you doubling up.
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