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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Symphony No.5 (1975-1976) [29:05]
Symphony No.7 Insect Symphony (1988) [43:40]
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Max Pommer
rec. 1991. DDD
ONDINE ODE765 [72:45]

Kalevi 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.
I first encountered Aho’s music through the superb BIS disc of his Symphonic 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Following 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.
There 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.
While 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.
Like 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.
It 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.
Tim Perry


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