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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Wind Quintet No. 1 (2006) [22:24]
Wind Quintet No. 2 (2014) [31:33]
Philharmonisches Bläserquintett Berlin - Michael Hasel (flute); Andreas Wittmann (oboe); Walter Seyfarth (clarinet); Fergus McWilliam (horn); Marion Reinhard (bassoon)
rec. 2014, Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin (No. 1) & 2017, Traumton Studios, Berlin-Spandau (No. 2)
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2176 SACD [54:42]

Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra (2015)* [28:13]
Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra (1988-1989)** [31:16]
Ari-Pekka Mäenpää (timpani)
Sonja Fräki (piano)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Erkki Lasonpalo* / Eva Ollikainen**
rec. 2017, Turku Concert Hall, Finland
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2306 SACD [60:17]

Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Chamber Orchestra (2014-2015) [23:34]
Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn and Piano (2013) [24:20]
Solo I for violin (1975) [9:46]
Anders Paulsson (soprano saxophone)
Lapland Chamber Orchestra/John Storgårds
Väinö Jalkanen (piano); Markku Moilanen (oboe); Pekka Niskanen (clarinet) Antal Mojzer (bassoon) Ilkka Puputti (horn)
Jaakko Kuusisto (violin)
rec. 2015, Korundi House of Culture, Rovaniemi (concerto, quintet); 2017, Kalevi Aho Hall, Lahti (Solo I)
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2216 SACD [58:41]

When I embarked on my MusicWeb survey, The Music of Kalevi Aho, I had no idea it would trigger an enduring interest in this composer’s oeuvre. Thanks to BIS’s tireless support – they’ve recorded much of what Aho has written so far – my colleagues and I have been able to add lots more reviews to that initial tranche. Speaking of champions, it’s good to see John Storgårds and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra feature in this new batch; they first grabbed my attention with their awe-inspiring performance of Symphony No. 12 ‘Luosto’. I’m also pleased to see the Turku Philharmonic up there, along with violinist Jaakko Kuusisto and pianist Sonja Fräki. Indeed, the latter’s superb traversal of the Works for Solo Piano was on my shortlist of the best recordings for 2015. ‘Luosto’ made the final cut in 2008.

Conscious that I hadn’t reviewed any BIS/Aho releases for a while, I decided to go for a ‘triple bill’, which covers works written between 1975 and 2015. As ever, I’m struck by this unpretentious composer’s versatility; for example, he’s penned concertos for most instruments, including the contrabassoon, double bass and theremin, not to mention works for a whole raft of instrumental combos. Just as impressive is Aho’s consistency; yes, some pieces are more successful than others, but I’ve yet to find a dud among them. That’s true of the recordings as well, where the BIS engineers have done the music proud. The presence of Take5’s Hans Kipfer and Arcantus’s Fabian Frank – two of the best in the business – certainly bodes well for this tempting trio.

Let’s start with the latest album, the two wind quintets played by members of the Berliner Philharmoniker. (They requested and premiered No. 2.) Aho may be best known for his large-scale pieces, but he’s just as adept at writing for smaller groups. The Quintets for Bassoon and String Quartet and for Alto Saxophone, Bassoon, Viola, Cello and Double Bass (BIS-866) come to mind, as do those for Oboe and String Quartet and for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Viola and Cello (BIS-1036). Fine works all, they are well played, too. That said, the Berliners, in bang-up-to-date recordings, promise performances of a different order.

The first quintet, commissioned by the Turku Phil, gets off to a challenging start. It’s a reminder that Aho really knows the instruments for which he writes, and that means he can fully exploit – and artfully force – their range and colour. That, in turn, creates sound worlds of great vigour and interest. The techniques on show here are just astonishing, and, as expected, these players make it all look so easy. There’s much to delight the ear and exercise the mind, and even those wary of contemporary music will find that, despite some tart writing, these quintets are no acid bath. Indeed, the composer’s modus operandi, which melds academicism and accessibility, is evident in both works. To top it all, engineer Stephan Reh captures these delectable tone-feasts in sound of immense poise and presence.

If those quintets seem a little too cerebral at times, then the timp concerto – written for the Turku orchestra’s timpanist, Ari-Pekka Mäenpää, finds the composer at his engaging and immediate best. It’s a bravura work that modulates from quiet, tingling introspection to bold, thundering outbursts, the Turku band, under Erkki Lasonpalo, taut and intensely dramatic throughout. As with his other concertos, Aho demands a great deal of his soloist, although he tempers this with some remarkably expressive – and original – writing as well. Take the Intermezzo (Andante), for example, in which the timp beats like a gentle, subcutaneous pulse, the effect strangely mesmeric. It’s all so refreshingly direct, with not a note wasted on empty gestures. Then again, that’s a familiar aspect of this composer’s style.

And it just gets better. The Allegro ritmico, which couples a jazzy, loose-limbed intro with music of real pith and punch, is the highlight of this entertaining and thoroughly immersive concerto. The ensuing Mesto is merely the calm before the storm, the Presto – Epilogo buffeted by the wildest, most thrilling weather imaginable. And the playing’s all the more impressive for being so well controlled. Similarly, Frank’s beautifully rendered recording is big-boned but never overbearing. Goodness, what a marvellous piece this is, and how gratifying it is to discover that Aho, 70 next year, has lost none of his flair and energy. But, really, it’s Mäenpää who deserves the most praise, his performance both stimulating and stylish.

Having dubbed the Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (2003) a ‘must hear’, I was looking forward to No. 1, penned on the cusp of the composer’s fourth decade. The later work was written with the recorded soloist, Antti Siirala, in mind, which makes for a uniquely satisfying performance. That said, Sonja Fräki was very compelling in those solo works, so I expect nothing less this time around. The first concerto has a whip-cracking opener – Gershwin meets Prokofiev, perhaps – the soloist made to range far and wide. The Turku brass and bass drum are certainly impressive, the music arrestingly angular without being too sharp edged (the second movement in particular).

Although this was recorded in the same venue as the timp concerto – the Concert Hall, Turku – the sound is not quite as spacious or ingratiating; also, balances seem a lot closer, but one could argue that suits the vehement and volatile nature of the piece (the third movement is something of a stunner). This is assurance of another kind, born of a certain audacity, and the stark, impassioned playing of soloist and orchestra, under Eva Ollikainen, emphasises this at every turn. I daresay the sheer weight and impact of Fräki’s Steinway D is magnified by its uncompromising closeness. Then again, that’s a minor caveat when the performance as a whole is so magnetic.

Twenty-five years separate that concerto and the one for soprano sax, created for – and played here by – Anders Paulsson. Unlike the impetuous, attention-seeking piece we’ve just heard, this new work combines virtuosity with a more thoughtful, somewhat mellow character. True, it doesn’t have the ’edge’ of that earlier concerto, but there’s absolutely no blunting of the composer’s craft. And, as so often with Aho, head isn’t pursued at the expense of heart. Indeed, there’s plenty of the latter in Paulsson’s account of the taxing, yet extraordinarily expressive solo part. Goodness, I haven’t heard such accomplished, sure-footed playing since Branford Marsalis in American Spectrum and Massimo Giacchetti in Between Two Worlds. (Both were Recordings of the Month.)

By contrast, the accompanying quintet, in which pianist Väinö Jalkanen is a most spirited and colourful contributor, has an easeful lyricism that makes the piece a perfect foil to all that’s gone before. Oboist Markku Moilanen is centre stage much of the time, but then his companions also get a chance to strut their stuff. The highly motile second movement, Toccata, is a special delight, and the quiet, distilled sonorities of the Notturno that follows are very striking indeed. And what an effervescent finale, bubbling with good humour. As for the the filler, Solo I, it’s well played by violinist Jaakko Kuusisto. All three recordings – the concerto and quintet engineered by Andreas Ruge, Solo I by Hans Kipfer – are well up to the standards of the house. The composer’s very readable liner-notes are an added bonus.

Music that’s finely crafted and unfailingly accessible; the timp concerto is a special treat.

Dan Morgan

Previous reviews (BIS-2216): Dominy Clements ~ Stephen Barber



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