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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Kysymysten kirja (The Book of Questions) Suite for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra (2006-2007)* [24:27]
I. Jos olenkin (If I Just Had) [2:55]
II. Ruusun asu (The Rose's Apparel) [2:07]
III. Merenneitojen kyynelet (A Mermaid's Tears) [2:35]
IV. Minne päättyy sateenkaari? (Where Does the Rainbow End?) [3:06]
V. Nainen unessa (The Woman in the Dream) [1:00]
VI. Mitä merkitystä? (What Meaning) [1:57]
VII. Lapsuuteni kuollessa (When My Childhood Died) [1:38]
VIII. Tunneli (The Tunnel) [1:41]
IX. Kun näen meren (When I See the Sea) [1:20]
X. Kukkiva omenapuu (The Flowering Apple Tree) [1:22]
XI. Perhoset (Butterflies) [4:40]
Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra (2006)** [24:13]
Symphony No.14 'Rituaaleja' ('Rituals') for chamber orchestra, darabuka, djembe and gongs (2007]† [30:06]
I. Loitsu I: Kiihko (Incantation I: Zeal) [10:51]
II. Interludi I (Interlude I) [2:08]
III. Loitsu II: Kaiho ja vimma) (Incantation II: Yearning and Fury) [4:55]
IV. Kulkue (Procession) [6:19]
V. Interludi II (Interlude II) [2:15]
VI. Loitsu III: Lopetuksen mantra) (Incantation III: Mantra of the Ending) [3:35]
*Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
**Anna Kreetta Gribajcevic (viola)
†Herman Rechberger (darabuka & djembe), Jukka Koski (gongs & tam-tams)
rec. November 2007, Rovaniemi Church, Finland
Chamber Orchestra of Lapland/John Storgårds
BIS CD 1686 [79:34]

 

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BIS have done this composer proud, recording almost all of his works from Symphony No. 1 (1969) through to the gargantuan Symphony No 12 'Luosto' (2002-2003). The mainstay of this cycle has been the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä, who together have given us authoritative recordings of Aho's symphonies, concertos and other instrumental works. Fortunately, fellow Finn John Storgårds stepped in after Vänskä left for Minneapolis, leading the premiere and subsequent recording of 'Luosto', the latter one of my picks for 2008 (see The Music of Kalevi Aho). On the strength of that disc alone the Storgårds/Lapland partnership promises to be every bit as rewarding as the Vänskä/Lahti one.

Kalevi Aho is one of those rare creatures, a living composer whose self-effacing nature - he looks endearingly owlish in all his publicity photographs - conceals a consistent and enchanting musical talent. After 40 years of large-scale works he has entered a much more intimate phase with Rituals, which consists of three separate pieces designed to be performed as a single concert. The work was premiered and recorded by Storgårds and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra in November 2007.

Aho's liner notes are illuminating - not always a given when composers write about their own work - and it's interesting to note that the idea for this song-cycle sprang from his chance meeting with the husband of Finnish mezzo Monica Groop. The texts, by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), are somewhat surreal; for instance the first poem, 'If I Just Had', opens with the spoken lines: If I just had died unnoticed / From whom should I ask the time? Gnomic as it sounds it's not at all pretentious, thanks to Aho's pellucid orchestration and Groop's warm, expressive delivery. And I defy you not to be thrilled when her voice takes glorious flight in 'The Rose's Apparel'.

One of the joys of this composer's work is that one is instantly drawn to his individual soundscape, which develops - and envelops - with deceptive simplicity. The long instrumental strands and distinctive timbres are superbly caught by the BIS engineers, who have produced a recording of startling clarity and realism. But it's not just about the sounds; there is dramatic weight too, especially in 'A Mermaid's Tears'. The poem's final couplet - When the blue water sings / What is the scent of heaven's voice? - is a perfect metaphor for the song-cycle as a whole; it's strange but not precious, moving but not maudlin. It's a finely shaded piece, whose evanescent air constantly reminds me of Mahler's Ninth Symphony and Song of the Earth.

Aho invests these texts with musical and dramatic integrity, qualities that inform all three works on this disc. Storgårds has a painter's eye and never allows the orchestral colours to run or smear, even in the disembodied music of 'The Woman in the Dream'. And in 'What Meaning' Groop is intensely focused, singing with real feeling and a strong sense of line. Her voice never sounds pinched under pressure and she holds her own in the tumultuous moments of 'The Flowering Apple Tree'. But it's in the final poem, 'Butterflies', that the music seems to tremble on the very edge of extinction. Rarely have I heard playing of such translucence; indeed, I found myself listening to this song again, if only to reassure myself that it is as lovely as I had first imagined.

The second work in the triptych - the Viola Concerto - is very different; it starts strongly, the clear, firm-toned viola partnered by imperious timps. That said the piece is clearly cut from the same cloth as the song-cycle, but with bolder colours and patterns. Anna Kreetta Gribajcevic, principal viola of the Lahti orchestra from 2000 to 2007, is an imposing player who easily makes herself heard over the muscular, rhythmically diverse music of the first movement. And in the Presto that follows the viola really sings above the dark tremor of lower strings. For a small-scale work this concerto has its powerful moments, not to mention drum-led passages that look forward to the sound world of the symphony.

The concerto's third and fourth movements are the strangest of all, with a quiet, hypnotic character that quickly has the listener in its thrall. Yes, this music oscillates within a fairly narrow dynamic range but it offers a remarkably wide spectrum of colours too. Indeed, Aho's colouristic skills - always judiciously used - are part of what makes his work so endlessly rewarding. As for his rhythmic flair, this is clearly demonstrated in the Allegretto, the drums building a sonic bridge to the work that follows.

These two strands are twisted together in the symphony, especially with the addition of the darabuka and djembe, hand-played drums from the Middle East and Africa respectively. Anyone who has heard the thunder of bass drums in 'Luosto' will know just how primal these sounds can be. The opening Incantation I ('Zeal') with its darabuka solo is surely a small-scale version of the opening to 'Luosto'; indeed, this music has that same primordial quality, that sense of a profound darkness beyond the firelight. The BIS team have excelled themselves here, capturing both the intensity of the drums and the hushed string playing of Interlude I. This may not be an SACD but the depth and airiness of this recording is every bit as alluring as one.

Incantation II ('Yearning and Fury') is a potent brew, mixing quieter, more introspective, music with the shamanistic abandon of drums. And as if to underline the ritual elements of this symphony Procession introduces gongs and tam-tams to great effect. This slow, swaying music builds to a terrific climax as the cortège passes by and fades into the distance. After the second interlude comes Incantation III ('Mantra of the Ending'), in which intoxication is replaced by transcendent calm. Even the drums have lost their elemental fury, steadying to a reassuring, cathartic pulse.

Rituals is a musical and sonic treat. All the strengths and qualities of Aho's earlier works - especially the way he invigorates traditional musical forms - are here in abundance. Add to that the percussive nuances of the darabuka and djembe and you have a uniquely engaging programme. Thanks again to BIS for this important project, but really it's time we heard more of Aho's music in our concert halls.

Rituals finds the composer at the very peak of his powers; throw in exemplary music-making and fine sonics and you have a very special disc indeed.

Dan Morgan

 

 


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