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]

Comparative review by Dan Morgan
Kalevi Aho is a lucky man. There cannot be many contemporary composers whose stature is recognised by the State in the form of a fifteen year grant. Add to that a position of composer-in-residence for the last eighteen years with one of Northern Europe’s finest orchestras and a contract – one presumes – with a superb record company to record just about all your major compositions as soon as they appear and you will understand my reasoning. But there has to be talent to deserve such support and Aho has it in abundance. He has the fortunate knack of writing in an idiom that is both contemporary and accessible. I am sure I am one of many who eagerly snap up the next BIS release as soon as it appears regardless of the music. You are guaranteed music that will intrigue and fascinate.
Curiously, the recording here seems to have been held in the BIS vaults for the best part of five years. In every regard this maintains the high standards this creative team set themselves so I wonder why the delay. As often before in this series the disc is planned to contain both symphonic and concertante works. The CD opens with the Piano Concerto No.2 written for string accompaniment and played here by the same forces who gave the 2003 premiere. Pianist Antti Siirala is quite superb – as Aho describes in the ever-interesting liner – his playing is lean and muscular and cleanly articulated. I suppose that as a whole the work has a degree less individuality than some other Aho works of this period. But that is as much to do with the purely abstract nature of the work. Many of his other roughly contemporaneous works seem to deal with extra-musical situations or scenarios as does the Symphony No.13 that accompanies the concerto on this disc. Also, Aho often delights in the use of very full and diverse orchestrations so the ‘simplicity’ of the strings alone is something of a change. The form of the work is also relatively traditional following a fast-slow-fast format. The very opening with the repeating notes and flamboyant arabesques in the solo part had me thinking momentarily of Messiaen-like birdsong. But the music soon develops into complex polyphonic writing of which the superbly detailed BIS recording makes light work. This is where the music benefits greatly from the sure and experienced teamwork of Osmo Vänskä and his superb Lahti Symphony Orchestra. The confidence and security with which they play this music would warm the heart of any composer.

That Aho is fascinated by spatial effects in his music was made clear in the remarkable Symphony No. 12, "Luosto" which was conceived for performance on a hillside. For me that was a musical highpoint in Aho’s output and interesting and indeed often arresting though this work is I’m not sure I would quite put it on the same level … yet. Experience tells me that Aho’s works reveal their full stature gradually as familiarity grows so it might well be that I know the earlier work better. Although not a hillside, the spatial element here is provided by the Sibelius Hall in Lahti. So trumpets and horns play from the hall’s lighting gallery or echo chambers. Given that this is NOT an SACD the BIS engineers have achieved remarkable results producing these layers of orchestral sound. Listening on headphones, the placement of instrumental groups both across the aural landscape as well as front to back does create an uncanny sense of the space involved. The way the distant trumpets register even in the midst of some thick ‘main orchestra’ writing is brilliantly handled. Aho has given the symphony the subtitle Symphonic Characterizations. In the liner Aho elaborates on this title by explaining “the work attempts to portray in music a number of human character types”. The parallel with Nielsen’s Symphony No.2 ‘The Four Temperaments’ is hard to ignore. It does allow Aho to come up with some unique – as far as I am aware! – tempo indications; Moderato aristocratico, Presto irato – this section I’m guessing is around the 10:00 mark of track 4 and the Lahti players are breathtakingly aggressive and virtuosic – and Andante morbido to name but three. Aho is a past-master at handling large orchestral forces effectively, I occasionally wonder if we really need a heckelphone or alto saxophone. Each of the two movements sub-divides into various sections portraying different characters – again as Aho says, “the music is in a constant state of flux”. Which is perhaps where my current lack of total conviction lies. These are a wonderful series of portraits, enjoyable and entertaining, but I haven’t got into my head yet the through line of the entire work. Yes, material does recur as some kind of binding agent but my overall impression is more of the picturesque rather than of the symphonic in a truly formal sense. But it would be churlish not to enjoy the sounds Aho conjures from his orchestra – the Allegro calcolatore section [I had to look it up too – it means shrewd or scheming] – sounds like a miniature train-set version of Villa-Lobos’s Little Train of the Caipira and is genuinely witty.


The opening of the second section/movement shows off the quality of the orchestra and the brass in particular. Some of the violent aggressive writing there suddenly put me in mind of John McCabe’s superb Chagall Windows which is another work that embodies characteristics – in that case the twelve tribes of Israel – in music. To give the work symphonic unity as well as dramatic impact Aho revisits material from the earlier movement in what he describes as being where “various types of character meet each other and form what might be termed a huge choir comprising different, indeed opposite musical temperaments.” Climactic it certainly is with the music then dissolving away in an extended orchestral/textual decrescendo spanning the final minute or so of music over a held low string pedal.


I’ve been trying to work out why I didn’t enjoy this more. Partly, I’m sure, because of my limited familiarity at the point of writing; partly as well the context in which I came to listen to the work. Ideally one should start every review with a totally clean slate. However, the disc I reviewed immediately preceding this, Tommie Haglund’s Hymns to the Night has made such an impression that it has rather diminished my feeling for this recording. Rightly or wrongly I perceived the Haglund as speaking from the heart with a ferocious concentration, this work faintly hints at being more superficial, more reliant on stock contemporary music gestures of extended instrumentations and ‘clever’ orchestral effects. To pick up on the instrumental placement idea perhaps playing to the gallery … literally! Admirers of Aho’s work – and I count myself as one – need not hesitate; not all music needs to be profound or even ‘meaningful’ after all. As I hope I have made clear the performances and production on this disc are up to BIS’s usual exemplary standard.


This is a disc to which I will return in the expectation of greater understanding.


Nick Barnard
A disc to which I will return in the expectation of greater understanding.