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Kalevi AHO (b.1949)
Chinese Songs (1997) [18:29]
Symphony No. 4 (1972-3) [44:51]
Tiina Vahevaara (soprano)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. June 1999, Ristinkirkko, Lahti, Finland
BIS-CD-1066 [63:20]
 
The Book of Questions [24:29]
Viola Concerto [24:29]
Symphony No. 14, Rituals [30:35]
Monica Groop (mezzo); Anna Kreetta Gribajcevic (viola); Herman Rechberger (percussion
Lapland Chamber Orchestra/John Storgards
rec. November 2007, Rovaniemi Church, Rovaniemi, Finland
BIS-CD-1686 [79:34]

Kalevi Aho excels in vocal music. The contemporary Finn is up to 15 symphonies and a number of concertos for unlikely instruments (even the contrabassoon), but not enough of a spotlight has been shone on his orchestral song cycles, given their qualities.
 
The Chinese Songs, written in 1997 and quickly recorded by BIS, are a set of six which evoke Chinese musical idioms and scales without reaching condescension or that cutesy orientalism which western composers so often fall into. There are a few moments of overt Chinese-sounding music, particularly in the last song, but the overall effect is subtler.
 
Even better is the Book of Questions, a suite of eleven songs from 2006. These are texts by Pablo Neruda, the first of which Monica Groop speaks rather than sings; in all of them, Aho says he was especially keen to make sure that every word could be heard. That reminds me of a quality he exhibits in both cycles: though his musical language does not always contain fluid, melodic lines, his singers are treated to them, and their parts tend to have an eloquence that preserves the expressiveness of the original lines. Like with many other composers, the presence of a voice acts to tame aggressive or wild instincts.
 
Those get their voice in one of the two symphonies. No. 14, paired with the later song set, features a solo percussionist, who plays the exotic darabuka and djembe (hand-drums from Arabia and Africa). The darabuka starts off the symphony with a hypnotic rhythm, and the percussionist is a near-constant presence, pitted concerto-style against the orchestra, waking it from a string-heavy introduction (5:20ish mark) and urging it to greater heights of passion.
 
The Symphony No. 4, by contrast, is a monumental, melancholic, almost reverential work in two sprawling slow movements and a scherzo. The slow movements are varied and powerfully built, from the slow fugal introduction to a finale that feels like dusk fading to twilight. There’s a slightly sacred feel to some of the melodies, and this would make a fine requiem symphony. The scherzo, though, strongly evokes Shostakovich, especially the chirpy, sarcastic woodwind melodies of the Symphony No. 9 - think of its boisterous laughing tune. The climax, though, moves back to earlier Shostakovich, a crashing hair-raising spectacle.
 
The second CD, featuring Book of Questions and Symphony No. 14, was designed to form a single evening’s entertainment in concert; the Lapland Chamber Orchestra premieres both on the same programme as the Viola Concerto. Three premieres in one night? Beethoven once had that luxury. The Viola Concerto, which in this recording is the same length as the song cycle down to the second, starts with a brooding viola solo against wild timpani rolls in different pitches; for the first time a comparison to late Sibelius seems natural. The faster sections do call to mind his tone poems, although one Aho-specific trait is the long cadenza which forms a movement of its own. The whole piece plays continuously.
 
More or less every performance in the BIS Aho series is outstanding (see Dan Morgan's survey), particularly these. The Lahti and Lapland orchestras are outstanding, and if I have one complaint, it’s that the voice of Tiina Vahevaara (soprano, Chinese Songs) is simply not to my personal taste. Not her fault, either: just the natural sound of it. Other reviewers haven’t complained, so the problem lies with my ears. The songs, taken together, are an interesting and under-explored part of Aho’s output. Investigate.
 
Brian Reinhart

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan - Symphony 4/Chinese songs ~~ Symphony 14/concerto