Not many new releases can boast ‘recorded in the presence of the composer’,
but then the Aho/BIS/Lahti relationship has been a close one from the
start. Fortunately Osmo Vänskä – the mainstay of this great project
until he took up the musical directorship of the Minnesota Orchestra
in 2003 – has been replaced by the equally talented and sympathetic
John Storgårds. Now we have Martyn Brabbins, whose Proms recording of
Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony I applauded so vigorously last year
It’s always a pleasure to read Aho’s succinct liner-notes, but then
he’s among that rare breed of plain-speaking, unpretentious contemporary
composers who refuse to clothe their works in arcane musico-philosophical
garb. he makes it clear that in the concerto he looks to Arab music
for something ‘other’; this he achieves with the use of oboe d’amore,
heckelphone, darabuka and djembe. The distinctive sounds and rhythmic
patter of the latter – deployed to telling effect in the sinuous Presto
– really do give the work an irresistibly exotic flavour.
There’s a chamber-like intensity to this concerto – a heightened instrumental
clarity if you will – and oboist Piet Van Bockstal is a gentle and evocative
soloist throughout. The unfamiliar sounds that emanate from the rest
of the orchestra – they’re hardly avant-garde, but they’d be outside
the remit of most ensembles – are expertly pitched, and Brabbins ensures
that focus and momentum are never lost. The fourth movement Cadenza
in particular features ear-pricking calisthenics for the oboe; the self-effacing
Van Bockstal is dextrous without seeming too flamboyant. Indeed, there’s
a balance between style and content here, a delicate inner equilibrium,
that one hears in Aho’s very best works.
After that wide-ranging and eventful opener Solo IX
to Van Bockstal, is a thrilling display of the oboe’s expressive possibilities.
Now ecstatic, now reflective, the writing – and playing – are never
less than mesmeric. As for the recording, made in the familiar acoustic
of Potton Hall, it’s exemplary in its timbral accuracy and sense of
a living, breathing space. The oboist is placed at a sensible distance
too, which gives the instrument a warm, unfettered loveliness that’s
sure to win friends for this piece and its very capable dedicatee.
The insistent repeated notes on the piano at the start of the Sonata
herald a return to Aho’s more robust, attention-grabbing style of the
1980s. This is young man’s music, probing and not a little confrontational,
but for all that it’s an assured work and – in the best sense of the
word – it’s an accessible one too. Yutaka Oya’s alert, muscular pianism
is very well caught, although some listeners may find the big, bold
Steinway D overshadows the more backwardly placed oboist at times. Still,
there’s much to enjoy here – the sudden lyrical flowering at the heart
of the second movement for instance – and there are surprisingly jazzy,
Milhaud-like passages as well. In fact, this piece strikes me as very
Gallic, suave and sophisticated yet egalitarian in its appeal.
Another fine addition to the Aho discography, which has grown in size
and stature since my survey
in 2008. There’s no sign of artistic atrophy – see also my review
of Aho’s hugely potent Organ Symphony
, written in 2007 – and
yet again BIS have done this composer proud with a recording of disarming
naturalness and presence.
Fine music and musicianship, faithfully caught; what BIS does best.