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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra (2000-01) [28:30]
Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra (2004-05) [34:24]
Øystein Baadsvik (tuba), Lewis Lipnick (contrabassoon)
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Mats Rondin (tuba)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton (contra.)
rec. 23-24 February 2006, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway (tuba); November 2006, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden (contra.)
BIS CD-1574 [63:42]

Being a composer and a sub-contrabass flute player, I do know a little about extreme instruments and the problems and challenges which exist in writing for them. I believe the gauntlet is still waiting to be picked up when it comes to a concerto for my instrument, but tuba concertos have been increasingly a part of concert programmes since Ralph Vaughan Williams’ pioneering work in the genre from 1954. There have been a few good examples since, including some recorded by two of my former teachers Edward Gregson and Roger Steptoe. Given the opportunity and the technical challenge, players will rise to the demands of such works, and the standards expected of new generations of professionals increase as a result.
One aspect of the tuba concerto is, in general, a tendency to brevity when it comes to their composition. This may have something to do with sympathy for the soloist, who might be expected to stagger from the stage, barely having survived such a heavy blow – another reason being the difficulty in creating a sustained serious work for something which is often perceived as a ‘comedy’ instrument. Kalevi Aho’s approach involved close collaboration with a seasoned professional, and the work actually begins and ends on notes chosen by Harri Lidsle, tuba player with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. In his own notes, Aho reminds us that “by nature, the tuba is a very songful instrument”, and indeed there are many highly lyrical lines, themes and passages which explore the expressive upper ranges of the instrument. The instrument’s surprising agility is also given free rein, and sensitive orchestration means that the low tessitura and resulting limitations of the instrument’s projection through heavy textures are avoided. This is not to say that the orchestra is in any way restricted either. The tidal waves of sound in the final movement, with brass, strings and a battery of percussion in full flow are truly symphonic in character, fulfilling the promise of a grand scale which can be assumed from the half-hour timing of this work.

Most of the writing for the soloist is conventional, but as the third and final movement draws to a close, the player sings at the same time as playing, as well as grunting and snorting like some kind of strange animal – combining with the orchestra to magical effect. With the lyrical writing of the second movement’s cadenza the tuba actually sounds like a smaller instrument on occasion, but far from being the slower middle movement one might expect, the second begins with high, almost cinematic drama. Øystein Baadsvik’s playing is truly excellent, employing subtle vibrato here and there, tonsil rattling low notes and stunning technique when it comes to articulation. The combination of powerful orchestral writing and genuine musicianship from all concerned is an unbeatable one, and this work deserves to be taken up globally.
The contrabassoon is an altogether different, and to my ears more uncontrollable beast than the tuba. Lewis Lipnick writes his own note for the piece, having commissioned it, and subsequently confronted with “the most challenging work ever written for the contrabassoon.” Aho’s concerto in fact took the instrument a whole octave above its recognised range, and it was the designs and construction of an acoustically superior instrument “by luck or fate” in the U.S. which ultimately made the work playable. The recording here is made up from two live performances with the Bergen Phil. conducted by Andrew Litton, and the performance certainly has plenty of concert-hall vibrancy although I detected no audience noise at all.
The composer’s notes tell us that the first ever contrabassoon concerto was also written for Lewis Lipnick in 1978, the composer in this case being Gunther Schuller. Other examples are virtually non-existent however, and Aho again consulted extensively with specialists before writing this incredible work. Like the tuba, and in fact many other ostensibly subterranean instruments, the contrabassoon can have a very cantabile character, and while the whole range of the instrument is explored, its lyrical nature comes through remarkably well. Again, imaginative orchestration is very much part of Aho’s successful negotiation with his unusual solo instrument, and trios with the contrabassoon, heckelphone and alto saxophone provide some of the more intriguing moments.
The Contrabassoon Concerto is, in the composer’s own words, “the most monumental of my instrumental concertos – in essence [ ] almost a symphony for contrabassoon and orchestra.” I do note however, that one of the aspects both of these works share is that neither out-stays their welcome, and neither really gives the impression of being ‘long’. Both kept me on the edge of my seat, and Lipnick’s playing is an inspiration. Aho’s musical voice is highly individual, but if you want some references, then one or two woodwind passages reminded me of a wild kind of Nielsen, you might get a whiff of Shostakovich here and there, the occasional Sibelian inflection in the richness of the orchestration. Aho’s symphonic work is recognised as having a kind of Mahlerian power, and on the strength of the Contrabassoon Concerto I can well believe it: the opening six minutes or so of the work is like entering some kind of breathtaking temple or vast undiscovered inner space, and the climax of the final movement from about 5:00, even including the dropping of heavy chains; is something which may do damage to your dentures, such is the jaw-clenching tension which develops.
The recordings are superb, and well up to BIS’s own high standards. Collectors of this label’s ongoing range of releases by this composer (see below) will already have this disc on their wish-list, and will most certainly not be disappointed. Former non-initiates like me will have had an entirely new world opened for them, which, for the price of a CD, has to be something of a bargain.
Dominy Clements

Reviews of other Aho recordings on BIS
Symphonies 2 & 7
Symphony 3 & Songs And Dances of Death
Symphony 11 & Symphonic Dances
Flute Concerto


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