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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Minea (Concertante Music for Orchestra) (2008) [18:59]
Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra (2005)* [28:14]
Symphony No.15 (2009-2010) [30:08]
*Eero Munter (double bass)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä (Minea); Jaakko Kuusisto (concerto); Dima Slobodeniouk (symphony)
rec. Sibelius Hall. Lahti, Finland, February 2011 (Minea), May 2010 (concerto) & May 2011 (symphony). Reviewed as 24-bit/44.1kHz download
BIS BIS-SACD-1866 [78:19]

A new recording from the long-running Aho/BIS partnership is always an event. Among recent instalments is a collection of the composer’s organ works (review) and pieces for oboe (review), both of which confirm the well of inspiration hasn’t run dry. Some of my colleagues struggle to find an entrée to Aho’s eclectic œuvre, but for others the attraction is immediate and sustained; perhaps embarking on a detailed survey of this music helps one get a better grasp of the composer’s goals and idiom. In any event I’ve yet to be disappointed by Aho’s steady output, which always strikes me as fresh and inventive.

Osmo Vänskä was a key part of this ambitious project before he left for Minnesota in 2003; sadly the US orchestra’s much-publicised dispute – now resolved – and Vänskä’s eventual resignation as their musical director has disrupted a very promising relationship. At the time of writing there's no indication that Vänskä will return. But what about the music? Minea, written for the Minnesotans, pre-dates the unseemly bust-up between players and management. Designed to be played by every member of the orchestra it’s a rhythmically vital and varied work that uses Middle Eastern and African instruments – the darabuka and djembe – last heard in Aho’s 14th Symphony, Rituals (review). As always rhythms and colours are subtle and interesting, and that ensures the music doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Aho has written concertos for so many different – and unexpected – instruments, so it’s no surprise he’s alighted on the double bass at last. Cast in five continuous, lightly scored movements the piece sets the soloist against a reduced orchestra in order for it to be more easily heard. The dark, louring sound that emerges has a mournful charm that, in less experienced hands, might seem lugubrious. Aho’s sound world – original, ear-pricking – is superbly rendered in this finely detailed recording. It’s a skittish piece, with some wonderful pizzicato playing from Eero Munter in Cadenza, while the buzz and hum of the central Presto must surely bring to mind the composer’s so-called ‘Insect Symphony’ (No. 7).

The concerto is remarkably restrained, and there are times when one is reminded of the double bass’s limited range and colour palette. That said, Aho keeps it alive with some striking sonorities and rhythms, and the carefully calibrated percussion add a certain exoticism to the proceedings. Dynamics are superbly judged and the recording – a 44.1kHz original – is both polished and pointful. Happily there’s no striving for effect, so Cadenza II – marked Misterioso – comes across as a simple yet effective piece of nachtmusik. What is most appealing though – in the instrumental skeins and swirls of the finale especially – is this composer’s unerring ability to pare down the music without sacrificing body, colour or innate lyricism.

Lahti’s Sibelius Hall has a fine acoustic, and the BIS team must know it well by now; it certainly seems to favour smaller-scale works with plenty of inner shape and detail, but like all superior concert halls it can also cope with mammoth works, such as Aho’s Symphony No. 12, Luosto (review). The small-scale 15th, in four titled movements, follows the economy and concentration of the other works here. Its ‘foggy’ first movement – Nebbia – is highly cinematic, and the Lahti players tackle the slips, slides and foghorn-like brass writing with aplomb. As ever, unexpected colour washes and rhythmic snatches keeps one keenly focused throughout.

Aho has called this symphony his very own ‘apotheosis of the dance’, and the quiet, pulsing rhythms of the second movement – aptly titled Musica bizzarra – certainly bear that out. Again, there’s a veiled exoticism here, and climaxes fall back to a hypnotic beat; in turn that induces an unsettling sense of something – or somewhere – just beyond one’s ken. Aho, somewhat prone to enigmatic utterances, plays the sphinx even more these days. Paradoxical as it may seem, the unwinding Interludio manages to be oblique yet never blank, and the weave of the finale – Music strana – contains surprisingly jazzy threads.

Aho fans will find much to enjoy here. This is the composer at his most concentrated, yet behind the mask is a quick – and quicksilver – intelligence that never takes the listener for granted. As contemporary pieces go all three works are very approachable, and there’s none of the dry academicism that leaves one feeling sternly instructed yet curiously unfulfilled. The composer’s liner-notes are as clear and concise as ever, and the entire package reaffirms the high production values of this most valuable series.

Minimal but not minimalist; music of tantalising character and contrast.

Dan Morgan

Note: this is an updated version of the review published in Download News 2013/17.