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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Minea - Concertante Music for Orchestra (2008) [18:59]
Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra (2005) [28:14]
Symphony No.15 (2009-10) [30:08]
Eero Munter (bass)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Jaakko Kuusisto (concerto); Dima Slobodeniouk (sym); Osmo Vänskä (Minea)
rec. May 2010 (concerto), February 2011 (Minea), May 2011 (sym), Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
BIS BIS-SACD-1866 [78:19]

The BIS odyssey of recording the orchestral works of Kalevi Aho, one of the world’s leading composers continues. By my reckoning this release is the twelfth in the BIS series and it features Aho’s latest offering: his Fifteenth Symphony.
 
The history of classical music is littered with colourful stories of disastrous premieres. In March 2011 I was in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester for the world premiere of this symphony. Performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena, any fears that the first performance might join that list of luckless premieres proved unfounded and Aho was called to the stage in response to the enthusiastic audience response.
 
A joint commission with the BBC Philharmonic and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra the Fifteenth Symphony is a substantial work lasting just over half an hour. Aho has described the score as “the apotheosis of the dance” in deference to the influence of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. He has given descriptive titles to the symphony’s four movements: Nebbia (Mist/Haze); Musica bizzarra (Bizarre music); Interludio (Interlude) and Musica strana (Strange music). This immediately approachable symphony holds the attention and contains much impressive and fascinating writing. It’s predominantly uplifting in character and just bubbles along with remarkable reserves of energy. My enduring impression is of the highly rhythmic and colourfully exhilarating writing. This is often imbued with an exotic Middle Eastern character and punctuated with liberal use of percussion much of which is for hand-drums. The start of Nebbia suggests a winter scene of walking through fog at night, maybe, in a city in the early hours. Although the fog begins to lift there remains an increasing atmosphere of menace before the music decays away. There is an exotic flavour to the Musica bizzarra with wide dynamics that swiftly shift in mood. The writing is especially percussive complete with prominent use of bongos, congas, darbuka and djembe. Evoking a chilly winter picture the Interludio confers an uneasy calm interrupted by brisk, fierce figures on the strings. Markedly percussive, Musica strana (Strange music) inhabits a fascinating sound-world once again with striking use of wide dynamics. Here Aho’s writing establishes a raucous temperament that exudes vitality.
 
Composed in 2008, Minea was a commission by the Minnesota Orchestra who premièred it the next year under Osmo Vänskä. This virtuosic score lasting nineteen minutes was written with the intention that each member of the orchestra has something significant to play. Aho writes “formally, Minea is distantly reminiscent of Indian rāgas” however other influences of Oriental music are evident such as Arabian music. The composer seems intent on expanding the traditional world of classical music with writing that clearly focuses on unusual rhythms. Typical of Aho’s compositions is the use of wide dynamics together with marked contrasts of orchestral weight and character. This Impressive, compelling and accessible score deserves to be widely known.
 
When composing his Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra in 2005 Aho stated that he was careful not to allow the orchestra to drown out the sound of the solo instrument. He employs lighter textures during the solo passages. To ensure familiarity with the potential of the double bass Aho borrowed an instrument from Eero Munter who commissioned the score. Munter gave the first performance in 2005 at Lahti. Playing continuously the concerto is cast in five movements, two of which are cadenzas. The dark-hued opening Moderato, Passionato is inhabited by mysterious scurrying figures. The “intensely songful ” description given to the movement by Aho doesn’t really work for me. The second movement Cadenza I has the double-bass played exclusively with pizzicato - often of a feather-light quality. A real highlight is movement three which is characterised by its Presto outer sections energetically performed with the freshness of spring. By contrast the Tranquillo section creates an atmosphere of unerring calm. Altering from its conventional register the double-bass is played with harmonics throughout. Also a cadenza for the double bass movement four, entitled Misterioso, includes two percussionists that really dominate the writing with their penetrating sounds. It’s remarkable how Aho successfully creates an unearthly atmosphere where time almost stands still. The Finale marked Andante - Allegro ritmico contains music of an ominous, rather threatening quality. Gradually increasing in weight, an impressive climax ensues before gradually fading into the sound of the soloist tapping and knocking the wood of the double-bass. Owing to the low, dark sound characteristics of the double bass the instrument seldom stands out like a solo instrument in a traditional concerto. It feels more like part of the orchestra. I fear the solo double bass would be almost inaudible in a concert hall. Nevertheless this is a most impressive score and one that I will play again soon.
 
I have only praise for the Lahti Symphony Orchestra displaying an unfailing instinct for Aho’s turbulent sound-world of absorbing textures and enticing rhythms. Each conductor seems impeccably prepared and maintains a firm grip, securing alert and involving performances. Eero Munter playing a Guadagnini (Turin 1770) and clearly relishes the artistic and technical demands asked of his instrument.
 
In the BIS booklet Aho has written the essay himself. He provides a real insight into the three works. The disc reviewed is a Hybrid SACD that I played on my standard player. The engineers have provided excellent sound quality that is full and sharply focused. For anyone wanting to hear the fascinating and accessible music of Kalevi Aho for the first time this outstanding release would make an ideal embarkation point.
 
Michael Cookson

Previous review: Dan Morgan


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