Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Concerto for Horn and Chamber Orchestra (2011) [26:39]
Acht Jahreszeiten (Eight Seasons): Concerto for Theremin and Chamber Orchestra (2011) [31:43]
Annu Salminen (horn), Carolina Eyck (theremin)
Lapland Chamber Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. January 2013, Korundi House of Culture, Rovaniemi, Finland. DDD/DSD
Reviewed as 24-bit download with pdf booklet; also available in mp3 and 16-bit lossless formats (BW)
BIS 2036 SACD [58:22]
I had never thought of the theremin as a serious instrument – just the thing for spooky film music; surely not for a concerto? Then I was intrigued by seeing this BIS recording of Aho’s recent concerto for the instrument and the thought occurred that no-one would ever have thought of the tuba as a proper instrument for which to write a concerto had Vaughan Williams not done so, why not one for the theremin? As it happens, among the many instruments for which Aho has written concertos, there’s one for the tuba.
Though there are twelve recordings of it, the VW is hardly a piece of essential repertoire but, as Dr Johnson said of dogs trained to stand on two legs, the miracle is not that it was done but that it could be done at all. The Theremin – properly spelled with upper-case ‘T’ because it’s the anglicised version of its Russian inventor’s name – is even less mainstream than the tuba as a solo instrument: so little known in classical circles that one web dealer even consistently misspells it as ‘theramin’ in advertising this recording.
I didn’t go for the Aho Theremin Concerto at the time of its release, a few months ago, partly because Dan Morgan, who thought the Horn Concerto ‘deeply impressive’ was less taken with the ‘comparatively lightweight’ Theremin Concerto – review. Curiosity has finally got the better of me several months later, partly because I don’t know Aho’s music at all well. I took the opportunity at the same time of trying the BIS recording of his Symphony No.11 and Symphonic Dances (BIS-CD-1336 – review), first by streaming from Naxos Music Library and then, because I was so impressed, especially by the Dances, by downloading from eclassical.com (mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless, with pdf booklet). That’s probably the best place for Aho neophytes to start.
To start the wrong way round, I began with the Theremin Concerto, which is placed second on the recording. I must admit that I had been expecting something in less than perfect taste and there are some strange, even demented noises at times, but this is a composer from whom one expects the unexpected, and I was intrigued by what I heard. It works better than the tuba in the Vaughan Williams concerto, more like Messiaen’s integration of a not dissimilar electronic instrument, the ondes martenot into his Turangalîla Symphony and other works.
At times the solo instrument sounds rather like an Oriental instrument such as the Chinese erhu, with quarter-tones; at other times it sounds like the eerie sound of the birds which accompany Aho’s older fellow Finn Einojuhani Rautavaara’s most famous composition, Cantus Arcticus. After all, a Theremin Concerto is no more off-beat than one for birds and orchestra. Whether it will prove as enduring as Cantus Arcticus, which now has eleven recordings to its credit in the UK catalogue and to which I regularly return with enjoyment, only time will tell. Though some of it seems just to consist of weird sounds for the sake of making weird sounds, there’s enough that is more substantial to make me suspect that it will.
In case you haven’t yet encountered Rautavaara, a good place to start would be with another BIS recording, of Symphony No.7 (‘Angel of Light’), Dances with the Winds (concerto for flutes) and Cantus Arcticus (BIS-CD-1038: Lahti SO/Osmo Vänskä – review). That, too, is available for download in mp3 and lossless sound, with pdf booklet, from eclassical.com.
The Aho Horn Concerto is as impressive as Dan Morgan has described it – I happily refer you to what he has said. I will take up one matter which he mentions because I remember him emailing me at the time to ask if I had experienced similar problems with eclassical.com downloads of BIS recordings, namely the failure of some of the tracks to integrate seamlessly when the music is continuous across tracks.
In the bad old days – not so long ago – you could expect mp3 recordings to drop out briefly between movements. The Windows Media Player even used to introduce inter-track gaps deliberately; though thankfully that has been cured for Windows 8, theclassicalshop.net still warn prospective purchasers to expect it and it remains a problem with mp3 files played in the car on an mp3 CDR – otherwise a good way to get 5 hours-plus on one CD – or via the USB input of an amplifier or player.
I played the Aho recordings in 24-bit and mp3 via Winamp and I’m pleased to report that I experienced no inter-track glitches at all. Given that the free version of Winamp is more than happy to play files up to 24/96 and to burn mp3 and 16-bit lossless files to CDR, I’ve come to use it in preference to any other. On the very rare occasions in the past when I’ve encountered a small glitch, Songbird has smoothed the way, but I haven’t even needed to install it on my current desk-top machine, now well over a year old.
I enjoyed the Horn Concerto and Theremin Concerto more than I had anticipated and, in the latter case, more than Dan Morgan, so I can happily commend this recording for your consideration. The recording is excellent, especially in 24-bit form; even in that format the download price of $15.76 is less than you are likely to pay for the SACD at current exchange rates (£20.59 from one dealer as I write!) You won’t get the video clip which comes with the SACD, but you can watch that on YouTube. I’m no great lover of the avant-garde but I enjoyed this recording. Even the comparatively unadventurous may well enjoy this, but they may be better advised to start with the BIS recording of Symphonic Dances listed above. If you are not sure, sample the concertos if you can from Naxos Music Library or Qobuz. They also have the earlier recording.
Another review ...
Kalevi Aho’s work via BIS has produced some reliably magnificent recordings of equally reliably high quality music. For those in the know each new title is something to be sought out and eagerly snapped up.
This is an intriguing pair of concertos and well up to standard from all concerned. The Concerto for Horn and Orchestra opens with not unfamiliar, even Sibelian sonorities, but with the horn placed off-stage so you think you have to turn the volume up. Long past are the days of conventionally diatonic horn writing such as you would expect from Mozart and his antecedents. That said, in some ways we come full circle with Aho who exploits the ‘out of tune’ qualities of the instrument’s upper partials, resulting in some microtonal effects which remind me of Hermann Baumann’s impressive natural horn performances. Divided into access points which indicate bar numbers rather than movements, this is a work in segments but which runs continuously through its various moods. Aho’s orchestral writing can be tough and muscular, but he retains transparency throughout, and clarity of expression and thought are always to the fore.
This work was written with hornist Annu Salminen in mind, and her performance is superb. Aho tends not to demand virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, but you’d know pretty soon if things were going awry. Salminen has a punchy tone and highly expressive phrasing which adds to the magical effect of the sublime final section in which the soloist once again moves away from the orchestra.
The Theremin, developed nearly a century ago in the USSR, reckoned to be the first ever electronic musical instrument, is something you will have come across in film scores for spooky movies of days gone by. Other than the human voice it is also unique in being an instrument you play without touching it, but by interacting with a magnetic field. This provides potentially limitless expressive possibilities, and the concerto starts darkly, with the Theremin engaging with low registers like a double bass. As a soloist further along it has qualities which remind one of some kind of exotic Chinese stringed instrument with a bowed singing character and performing in scales which differ just enough from our boring Western mean-tempered instruments to take us into fantastical worlds.
Filled with gorgeous moments, Eight Seasons is arguably less of a concerto, with its tendency to wander through picturesque effects such as those of deepening Autumn, Winter snows and ice, thaw and the return of the sun. Avoiding any reference to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the Theremin joins and links these effects, but performs less as a musical instrument in its own right than a vehicle for fragmented ‘moments’. It does have some gorgeously lyrical passages, but even when let loose in movements such as Eisschmelze (Melting of the Ice) it never really seems to break free. This is no doubt an effect of that ‘angularity of perception’ which has us searching for something in an instrument which it delivers in too different a way to have a comparable effect to something like an oboe or a cello. Aho even pits it against the human voice in a movement called Weihnachtsdunkelheit or Christmas Darkness and again in a few passages further on. This is the voice of Carolina Eyck herself and these are nice musical touches, but a bit like putting a toy piano next to a Bechstein. The Theremin can do a fascinating job of imitating a singer, but a sine wave will never approach the expressive colours of a good human voice. The thrashing around in the next movement, Frostwinter, conjuring swirling winds, also leaves me rather cold.
Don’t get me wrong, Eight Seasons is a fine piece but I don’t feel it is the last word in concertos for the Theremin. I have an instinct which draws me towards a re-thinking of the orchestra when it comes to preparing a work which would allow such an instrument truly to shine. Like Messiaen’s use of the ondes Martenot or Harald Genzmer’s Trautonium it can be much more than a resource for special effects, but its uniqueness is entirely distinctive and an oil-to-water barrier which clamours to be broken down with something genuinely new.
Previous review: Dan Morgan
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