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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Sieidi (2010) [36.04]
Symphony No. 5 (1975-6) [24.11]
Colin Currie (percussion)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Dima Slobodenoiuk
rec. 2017/20, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
BIS BIS-2336 SACD [61.08]

Over the past decade and more BIS have placed us heavily in their debt by their enthusiastic espousal of the music of Kalevi Aho, featuring performances and recordings of many of his major works composed during the last twenty years (see survey); and it is pleasing to report that they are now exploring his earlier symphonies written in the 1970s with this new disc featuring the one-movement Fifth Symphony, which Aho himself describes in his notes for this release as a “breakthrough work.”

And that is not an unfair description of a score which seeks to portray “a vision of the incoherence of our existence” in musical terms. Where many composers would have sought to render such a vision in terms of improvised and aleatoric music, Aho on the other hand imposes a strict discipline on his players – who are nevertheless at the same time instructed to play in multiple keys and in various disparate rhythms. These polytonal and polyrhythmic contrasts reach such an extreme that two conductors are required to keep order, and to ensure that passages where one section of the orchestra slowly accelerates in such a manner as to achieve exactly twice the speed of another section – in itself a horrendously difficult feat – come off correctly in performance (the second conductor here is Jaan Ots). In that respect the symphony parallels the example of the Fourth Symphony by Charles Ives, which was also given the benefit of multiple conductors at its early performances. There may also be hints of Ives, too, in what sound like half-remembered drunken renditions of could-be popular songs, including one which sounds eerily like “There’ll always be an England”! The sense of controlled chaos, with what the composer describes as “several dozen lines” (and it sounds like it!) is overwhelming. And the effect when the whole edifice collapses downwards into rubble towards the end (track 11) is utterly catastrophic; one wonders where on earth the composer can go after this.

And the result is amazing. After a long silence the horns quietly enter with chords of B minor (yes, a real key!) which slowly build into a shell-shocked coda crowned with abrupt chords in the manner of Prokofiev’s Death of Tybalt. There is no resolution; how could there be one which would not sound either lame or manufactured? Instead there is a sense of resolve, of looking forward to the future without facile hope or artificial elation; the composer’s note says that he was left with “the liberating feeling that everything was now possible.” I am not sure that I would want to listen to the Fifth Symphony often – I have the fear that over-frequent exposure to the music might blunt its stunning impact – but I certainly welcome the opportunity to hear it now, and look forward to experiencing it again in the not too distant future.

The symphony is coupled on this disc with the percussion concerto Sieidi, which is given star billing and which Aho identifies as his “most performed orchestral work”. The latter is not perhaps so surprising – there are a great many excellent virtuoso percussionists currently in the field, and the available number of really good concertos is limited – but the concerto has clocked up nearly eighty performances in its first eight years of existence, and several percussionists have eagerly taken up the work. Colin Currie, who gave the first performance in London in 2012, here returns to the score for its premičre recording. The work has no programme, but the element of shamanic ritual is reflected in its title which comes from a Sámi word meaning sacred place.

Whereas many percussion concertos require a huge array of instruments, presenting real logistical problems for the soloist to overcome as he constantly switches from one to another, Aho’s score is laid out for nine instruments only, each of them featured in isolation as the percussionist moves from hand-beaten drums across the stage to a tam-tam and then back again. This lends the whole single movement a logical structure, which is of assistance not only to the spectator in the concert hall but to the listener at home. The opening and closing sections feature the African djembe and the Arabian darabuka, and these frame display opportunities for tom-toms, snare drum, marimba, wood blocks, temple blocks, vibraphone and the tam-tam – which is furnished with an elaborate cadenza where the soloist is joined by two other percussionists placed to the extreme left and right of the stereo spectrum.

One might have expected Aho to mirror this distribution of instruments with some sort of formal palindromic device, with each of the instruments in turn reprising the music of its first appearance during the second half of the concerto; but he totally avoids any such formulistic device, instead giving us a series of sections which combine one of more of the featured instruments in turn. This then allows for a number of spell-binding moments, such as the saxophone lament as the temple blocks give way to the vibraphone or the invigorating march-like section during the recapitulation which builds up a head of steam of its own. The composer notes that “the orchestra occupies such an important role that the work could almost considered a concerto for orchestra”. While the opening orchestral sections may seem rather short-breathed, they certainly do gain unity as the concerto proceeds; and towards the end the orchestra seems very close to breaking into The Rite of Spring in a frantic presto section (track 7). But then the whole work dies away to an extended diminuendo coda which gainsays all expectations and provides a riveting finale. One is grateful for the trademark BIS length of silence at the end of this track; one needs it.

There has been a previous recording available of the Fifth Symphony, made in 1991 by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and with the composer as one of the conductors; a 2008 CD on Ondine remains in the catalogue. It constitutes a rather more cautious approach to the score (it lasts some five minutes longer), but in a work like this caution is definitely not a virtue. Nor is the vintage sound a patch on the new BIS recording, in a raw and very echo-laden church acoustic with an absurdly wide stereo separation. The new recording wins hands down, quite apart from the bonus of the percussion concerto (the Ondine release adds the Seventh Symphony which is already available on another BIS release).

The sound, as always from this source, is absolutely excellent. And this is really one instance where the ‘surround sound’ engineering of SACD is essential in the wide-spread percussion contributions to Sieidi – although they come over spectacularly enough in stereo. This disc is an absolute must for all those who love the music of one of our greatest living composers; and it should prove attractive, too, for those who welcome the excitement of two approachable and comprehensible pieces of modern music. Booklet notes are supplied in English, Finnish, German and French.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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