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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (2001-2002)* [28:43]
Symphony No. 13 Symphonic Characterizations (2003) [39:16]
*Antti Siirala (piano)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. May 2004 (concerto), September 2005 (symphony), Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
BIS-CD-1316 [68:49]

Experience Classicsonline

The partnership between BIS and Finnish composer Kalevi Aho is a most fruitful one, as our survey of this composer’s work amply demonstrates. The most recent additions to Aho’s growing discography include a massive orchestral work premiered on a mountainside Symphony No. 12 ‘Luosto’ – and the smaller-scale but no less compelling Symphony No.14 ‘Rituaaleja’. Happily, Osmo Vänskä – who had already moved to Minnesota – returned to Finland to record the two works on this new disc. He certainly knows this composer’s sound-world better than anyone, his long relationship with the Lahti orchestra cemented by their earlier, much-praised Sibelius cycle for BIS.
This new concerto, commissioned by the Mänttä Music festival’s artistic director Niklas Pokki, was written with Finnish pianist Antti Siirala in mind. Unaccountably I’ve not heard this soloist before, although he’s already collected a clutch of major awards. So, how does he fare, and how does this 21st-century concerto sound? It’s rather intimate – the pianist is accompanied by just 20 string players – and on first acquaintance the quicksilver writing reminded me of Prokofiev. That did surprise me, as the composer’s liner-notes make mention of Siirala’s prowess in a rather different musical tradition, that of Beethoven, Liszt and Brahms. However, that apparent dichotomy is soon resolved, with writing – and playing – that will certainly bring that illustrious trio to mind.
The three movements, played without a break, have a wonderful; rhapsodic character, the BIS engineers capturing Siirala’s warm, natural pianism very well indeed. And yes, even though one might detect a Brahmsian flavour at times – sample the passage that begins at 3:00 – there’s a strong, very individual voice here, any stylistic snatches welded into an entirely original and convincing whole. As for the strings, they soften the music’s edges, bringing out a wonderful sense of wistfulness in quieter passages. Just sample the gentle rain of sound that Siirala conjures up at 7:59 in the second movement, the string playing that follows Straussian in its weight and quiet stoicism. The Lahti forces are glorious, full, warm and beautifully blended.
And while the final movement strikes a distinctly Brahms/Beethoven pose at the start, the quirkier writing that follows seem closer to Prokofiev. Siirala delights in the glittering melodies, which he dashes off with aplomb, the strings adding their strange, tangential harmonies to the mix. This concerto is both elusive and refreshing; also it’s piqued my interest in this most talented pianist, who I’d especially like to hear in core 19th- and 20th-century repertoire.
Symphony No. 13, commissioned to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Lahti’s Sibelius Hall, makes use of the building’s unique acoustics. In his liner-notes Aho points out that various instruments are directed to play in the lighting gallery, the echo chambers and the choir. Listeners may remember he experimented with instruments and singers in the same hall in an effort to reproduce the spatial effects of ‘Luosto’, his outdoor symphony. Speaking of subtitles, the 13th has one too, ‘Symphonic Characterizations’. Cast in two movements, it depicts a range of human traits. Again, listeners may be reminded of the composer’s anthropomorphic ~ and highly entertaining – Insect Symphony (No. 7).
The different instrumental placements and varying acoustics, evident from the outset, probably work very well in the hall itself, but I’m not convinced the intended effects are that apparent here. Perhaps this would have sounded more striking as a multi-channel SACD – as was the case with ‘Luosto’. That said, there’s no denying the sinewy orchestration and constant momentum of the piece, which yokes together a whole range of conflicting moods – imperioso, semplice, malinconico, aristocratico, morbido and calcolatore. It’s an interesting conceit, but listeners may feel – as I do – that these labels aren’t pivotal to one’s enjoyment of the symphony as a whole.
Once again, I was struck by the composer’s economy of style, which creates music of chamber-like lucidity and concentration. The allure lies not so much in the overall picture but in the daubs that make up this larger orchestral canvas. In some ways the work’s discrete inner dialogues make it seem more like a concerto for orchestra than a symphony. Even in the second movement, with its emphasis on baser emotions, the percussion and brass are sparingly used, the various instrumental colours and timbres captured with commendable crispness and clarity. Just listen to the shimmering tam-tam at 5:00, it’s so wonderfully tactile.
New Aho recordings are always a cause for celebration, and this one is no exception. Of the two works here the concerto probably has the broadest appeal; it’s inventive without being perverse, and effortlessly tuneful without ever sounding anodyne. Many of the same qualities come through in the symphony as well, but if you really want to hear this composer at the height of his powers I’d suggest you try the more recent Symphony No. 14.
Not the best introduction to this discreet, ever-fascinating composer’s œuvre – the early symphonies would be a better place to start – but a must-hear for those who already own the other works in this excellent cycle.
Dan Morgan



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