Orchestral music holds a prominent place in Kalevi Aho's vast output. He has composed a number of orchestral works. There are some fifteen symphonies and the three chamber symphonies recorded here. Nor should we forget his many concertos including some for somewhat unusual instruments such as the contrabassoon. The symphonies span some twenty years of his composing life. Inevitably they reflect his progress over the years although the music displays many features that one has come to regard as Aho fingerprints.
Shostakovich's shadow looms large over the Chamber Symphony No.1. This is particularly noticeable in the opening: high violin melody counterbalanced by a single double bass providing a low-pitched counter-theme. It undoubtedly brings the Russian composer's music to mind. None the worse for that. The music then unfolds in a series of contrasted episodes in turn ironic, grotesque, whimsical and darkly ruminative. This compact, tightly argued piece ends with an almost surreal coda “as if echoing the song of strange, imaginary birds” (Kalevi Aho).
The Second Chamber Symphony opens with an arresting gesture, not unlike the opening idea of the First Chamber Symphony: a clash between high and low registers, between light and darkness. The music is rather tense and troubled throughout. An oppressive, ominous atmosphere pervades almost throughout the piece. Tension relaxes in the short central movement although it, too, is not as appeased as one might have expected. It eventually bridges into the furious third movement which nevertheless has its calmer moments but ends unresolved. The music dissolves and three quiet notes from the double basses played col legno
are all that is left.
The Third Chamber Symphony is a hybrid in that the first movement is for strings only and may thus be performed independently. The ensuing movements are for alto saxophone and strings. When played as a whole, as here, the soloist enters over the final quiet chords ending the first movement. Actually, the soloist literally enters the stage when starting to play. The composer mentions that while at work on the Third Chamber Symphony, he read a Finnish translation of Japanese tanka poetry. He noticed that strophes suited as descriptions of the moods of the various movements. So the first movement is inscribed “... frozen are the restless waters” which is clearly reflected in the music; strongly energetic music seems to freeze momentarily. The three movements for saxophone and strings are respectively inscribed “... oh, I have heard the wild geese calling” (perfectly rendered by the saxophone), “... the long nights are melting” (a Nocturne) and “... towards the open sea rows a fire-red boat” which provides a fine opportunity for the soloist to leave the stage almost unnoticed.
Kalevi Aho's finely crafted and often quite beautiful music has so far found many entirely sympathetic performers. The ones here are no exception. These works are beautifully played and warmly recorded. The sound is superb even when heard on a conventional CD player as mine. Fans of Aho's music who have no doubt already collected the many BIS discs devoted to his music will need no further prompt while others new to it might certainly find much to enjoy in these contemporary, though quite accessible works. This is yet another splendid addition to Aho's already imposing discography.