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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Nordic Spell – Sharon Bezaly
Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)

Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (2002)* [30:34]
Haukur TÓMASSON (b. 1960)

Flute Concerto No. 2 (2001)** [21:43]
Christian LINDBERG (b. 1958)

The World of Montuagretta - Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (2001-02)† [20:48]
Sharon Bezaly (flute)
* Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
** Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Bernharður Wilkinson
†Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. 28-29 November 2003, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland (Aho); June 2004, Háskólabíó, Reykjavik, Iceland (Tómasson); 10-11 November 2003, Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden (Lindberg). DDD
BIS-CD-1499 [74:27]
Experience Classicsonline

I first succumbed to flautist Sharon Bezaly’s spell on BIS’s Seascapes disc, where she plays Zhou Long’s The Deep, Deep Sea (review). I was struck then by her technique and the generosity and warmth of her playing. And she seems willing to take on the most demanding pieces; at the 2008 Proms she tackled Nigel Osborne’s fiendishly difficult Flute Concerto which, despite her best efforts, was less than memorable.

The good news is that Bezaly is in fine form on this disc, which contains flute pieces dedicated to her. The first, a concerto by the Kalevi Aho, is an intensely personal piece. Written in 2002, when the composer was coming to terms with the death of his father and the long illness of a much-loved spaniel, the work begins with the gentlest of entries for harp and flute. It’s quiet, reflective and, as so often with Aho, it’s direct and unpretentious.

More than that the first movement – marked Misterioso, adagio – is a lovely, tender piece of writing, with little of the dynamic swings we hear in his other concertos – the ‘monumental’ Cello Concerto comes to mind. These two works couldn’t be more different in their mood and manner. That said, at 6:38 there is grief and turmoil, but the soloist soon restores the air of quiet solitude. Bezaly’s tone is warm and songful throughout, but then this is the kind of music she does best.

Aho admits he had been reading the works of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer and intended to write a set of orchestral songs before deciding on a purely orchestral piece. As with the Chinese Songs and the Dayflies music of the Symphonic Dances, this concerto has a wonderful evanescent quality that is carried through to the Presto, leggiero. Bezaly’s limpid tone is entirely apt here, just before an orchestral crescendo gives way to music of exuberance and vitality. Throughout the composer maintains a marvellous sense of scale, never losing sight of the score’s more intimate, human dimension.

Osmo Vänskä and his Lahti orchestra, the mainstays of BIS’s Aho cycle, don’t disappoint either. The now familiar Sibelius Hall has a most grateful acoustic and the engineers certainly achieve a warm, natural balance that highlights the ‘hear through’ quality of Aho’s writing. Even in the slow-burning crescendo that begins at around 7:46 – now this is the composer we know from the symphonies, impassioned, powerful – Vänskä remains in control of the music’s dynamics. As the second movement slips seamlessly into the Epilogue Bezaly enchants, her long, singing lines simply spellbinding. This is lovely playing and Aho gives the soloist plenty to work with. As so often with this composer the final pages are surprisingly muted; in this case they’re poignant, too.

The Icelandic composer Haukur Tómasson is new to me, and I see from the liner-notes that he has won a number of prestigious music awards at home. His Flute Concerto No. 2 is cast in five interrelated movements, the first of which is marked Calmo. It’s a very different sound world from Aho’s, although it shares the latter’s economy of style and his penchant for unusual sonorities. That said, Tómasson seems to focus much more on specific, repeated timbres and rhythmic cells, the flute just one of several melodic strands.

The second movement, Scorrevole (flowing), has some very striking rhythmic and percussive elements, garlanded by bright, agile figures on the flute. Perhaps this is music that delights the ear rather than engages the emotions but it’s none the worse for that. In fact, when it’s as well structured and essayed as this it’s very compelling indeed.

There is a hypnotic calm to the third movement, with its mix of sustained passages and repeated rhythmic patterns. And for the first time the soloist is given more to do, underpinned by simple, even stark, instrumental interjections. Given the work’s provenance one might be tempted to think of fire and ice, such is the music’s mix of hard and soft edges. The Iceland Symphony play with real flair – as indeed they do in the recent Chandos disc of d’Indy pieces (see review). In both cases they are very well served by the recording engineers.

The final movements – Scintellante and Ardente – are self- explanatory, the former pointillist in its drops of instrumental colour. This really is an alluring soundscape, full of unusual sounds and rhythmic events. Even more appealing is that this music, like much of Aho’s, is presented in a refreshing, non-didactic way. The ease and agility of Bezaly’s playing makes a strong impression throughout.

As for Christian Lindberg I have only encountered him as a performer – he is the soloist in Aho’s Symphony No. 9 for trombone and orchestra – so I was curious to hear what he is like as both composer and conductor. The invented subtitle of this concerto, The World of Montuagretta, is loosely based on a documentary about the so-called travesti (cross-dressers) of Brazil, harrowing images from which had a profound effect on the composer. It’s not as grim or unrelenting as it first seems, for as Lindberg explains in his liner-notes the real story is that of the young travesti’s persistent humanity in the face of terrible adversity.

The five movements are given imaginary titles – Lindberg is at pains to distance himself from the tale, yet he has to remain involved enough to tell it. It’s a highly unusual conceit – and potentially a very awkward one – but I’m pleased to report it works rather well. The pure tones of the flute – sounding suitably transcendent – rise above the rough rhythms of the streets and the sudden bass drum interjections. There is much animation and high spirits too, Lindberg and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra articulating those Latin rhythms with style.

It’s a strange juxtaposition of real and imagined images but it does add up to a convincing musical whole. There are some wonderfully poignant moments – just listen to the haunting third movement, the flute dancing above a sustained and muted bass line. I was alternately moved and impressed by these conflicting moods, all achieved with an economy of style, all the more telling for being so simply done. The end of the third movement is particularly memorable in this respect.

But even without this subtext the concerto has much to delight the ear. Certainly Bezaly despatches the trills of the fifth movement with consummate ease, before the final movement starts with a burst of Latin heat and light. The percussion is well caught here and the amount of audible instrumental detail is astonishing. The work then moves into another of those haunted phases halfway through the final movement, with some ethereal passages before the bass drum brings it all back to earth.

My main interest was the Aho concerto but I’m delighted to have discovered the Tómasson and Lindberg pieces along the way. They are all rather intimate works that suit Bezaly’s expressive playing. Not major works, perhaps, but highly individual ones that should be more widely heard.

Dan Morgan

see also review by Jonathan Woolf RECORDING OF THE MONTH August 2005

The Music of Kalevi Aho by Dan Morgan



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