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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Nineteen Preludes (1965-1968) [34:51]
Three Small Piano Pieces (1971) [3:55]
Two Easy Piano Pieces for Children (1983) [2:08]
Sonatina for Piano (1993) [6:18]
Solo II (1985) [10:42]
Sonata for Piano (1980) [14:08]
Sonja Fräki (piano)
rec. January 2013, Nya Paviljongen, Grankulla, Finland
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2106 SACD [73:22]

BIS’s unwavering commitment to the music of Kalevi Aho means we seldom have to wait very long to hear the composer’s latest creations on disc or download. The most recent were the horn and theremin concertos, the first of which impressed me a great deal, the second rather less so (review). While the latter may have disappointed me a tad, Carolina Eyck's mastery of the 'ether organ' is beyond question. Now we have a collection of Aho's piano music, some of which dates from his school days; ah yes, one might think, the derivative/precocious scribblings of a young wannabe. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

The pianist Sonja Fräki is new to me; she specialises in contemporary music and the fact that she chose Aho’s piano works as the subject of her doctoral thesis at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy must surely make her an ideal interpreter of these pieces. The recording was made in the composer’s presence, which adds even more weight to this enterprise. I would have expected Aho to write the liner-notes, but this time it’s left to Fräki; she’s admirably concise and strikes a good balance between the music’s genesis and content.

The classical canon is peppered with significant sets of preludes, so carrying on this noble tradition might seem like an impossible challenge, especially since Aho began his while he was just sixteen. I'm astonished by the variety and imagination of these pieces, played here with a burning advocacy that most composers can only dream about. Yes, there are many references to earlier composers, stretching back to Bach, but as so often with Aho he integrates these echoes into music that’s unequivocally – even defiantly – his own.

I tend to praise Hyperion for the excellence of their piano sound, which few labels can match. Well, I’m happy to make an exception here, for the BIS team have captured all the richness and weight of Fräki’s Steinway D in a recording of tremendous range and presence. There's no doubt that the combined immediacy and sophistication of this release adds much to one's enjoyment - and critical perceptions - of this moreish music. Ditto the choice of performing space, the crystal clear but never sterile-sounding Nya Paviljongen, Grankulla.

In 1971 Aho set out to write a set of ten études, which he never completed; the Three Small Piano Pieces are as far as he got. Less than four minutes in length this is a powerful, imposing set of miniatures that combines spike and spontaneity, reflection and robustness. That same compactness is transferred to the Two Easy Piano Pieces for Children which, as the title implies, were written for teaching purposes. The solemn but quirky little Andante is charming and the sudden tantrums of the Allegretto had me laughing out loud. Now this is the kind of witty and refreshing fare I’d have loved when learning to play the piano.

The three-movement Sonatina for Piano shows how far Aho had come by the early 1990s; added to that early assurance is a formal clarity and heightened awareness of shape and colour. The scintillating Toccata is splendid, but it’s the metropolitan rush and jangle of the Prestissimo that will take your breath away. Fractious but never fractured, Fräki brings a precision and energy to these bravura bursts that had me mentally applauding her at every turn. Solo II, written as a competition test piece, could so easily deteriorate into a fatigue-inducing obstacle course for aspiring concert pianists; that it doesn’t is a tribute to Fräki’s ability to imbue the ‘double notes, fast leaps and runs’ with a surprising degree of warmth and character.

As if that weren’t enough the Sonata for Piano does indeed live up to Fräki’s description of it as Aho’s most important piece for solo piano. Cast in three fairly short movements it has an elusive, tangential opener that underlines this pianist’s remarkable powers of articulation, not to mention her sure sense of musical shape and thrust. The work itself is technically demanding and yet, as so often with Aho, it still engages and entertains. That’s a sleight of hand, to encompass all these things at once; indeed, this must be one of the most fertile and intellectually satisfying solo piano pieces I’ve heard in ages. The Tranquillo molto emerges as if in a daze, only to morph into a finale of formidable stamina and length of stride.

Anyone who reads and dips into a newly celebrated author’s early oeuvre is apt to be disappointed by those fledgling efforts. Not so Aho’s Nineteen Preludes which, already so well formed, point confidently towards the future. Precocity there is none, just fine music intelligently wrought. Factor in Fräki’s fabulous playing and BIS’s bar-raising sonics and you have a very desirable issue indeed.

A genuine jaw-dropper, this; almost certain to be one of my recordings of the year.

Dan Morgan