Tuesday 21 August 2012

Marvellously played Chamber Symphonies from Kalevi Aho

The Finnish composer Kalevi Aho is arguably one of the finest symphonists of our time.

Born in 1949, in Forssa, a small town on the Loimijoki river north-west of Helsinki, he began playing the violin and composing at the age on ten. He studied composition at the Sibelius Academy under Einojuhani Rautavaara, graduating in 1971. From 1971 to 1972 he studied in Berlin with Boris Blacher at the Staatlichen Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst.

From 1974 until 1988 he was a lecturer in musicology at Helsinki University and from 1988 until 1993 professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy. Aho became composer-in-residence for the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 1992 and since 1993 Aho has worked as a freelance composer.

Aho’s early compositions were influenced by Shostakovich and Neo-Classicism. After a period where his music moved towards Modernism (such as in his Sixth Symphony of 1980), his later works aim at a more coherent free-tonal style.

Aho’s compositions include operas, vocal music, fifteen symphonies, three chamber symphonies, other orchestral works, numerous concertos including two for piano, a cello concerto and a violin concerto and a large amount of chamber music.

Aho’s symphonic works often follow an 'abstract drama', similar to that in his operatic works. The world premiere of his fifteenth symphony was given in Manchester by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena on 26th March 2011.

BIS Records have recorded a large number of his works, including most of the symphonies, as part of their projected recordings of all of his works (to date).

A new release from BIS Records www.bis.se  has all three of his chamber symphonies played by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Stefan Asbury (No. 1 and 2) and Jean-Jacques Kantorow (No.3).


The First Chamber Symphony, written in 1976, was a Helsinki Festival commission and is one single movement. From the start it has all the bleakness of a Shostakovich Chamber symphony before savage string sounds interrupt the sombre atmosphere rising at times to complex climaxes.

The Second Chamber Symphony is in three movements and dates from 1991/92, having been commissioned by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. The first movement has strings leaping dissonantly around before settling to a quieter, more settled, theme but eventually soaring to the highest reaches of the violins before concluding on a quietly meditative note which leads directly into the second movement.

Here there are anguished string sounds interrupted by what the composer calls Bartok pizzicatos (string slaps against the finger board). The sombre mood prevails with occasional angry outbursts, before we suddenly find ourselves in the third movement where rich sonorous string passages surge around before dying away to a quiet organ like sonorities before falling to three quiet notes played col legno on double basses.

The four movement Third Chamber Symphony from 1995/96 was again written for the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. This twenty six minute work opens with atmospheric sounds of nature, with the strings evoking bird calls. The music quietens before picking up again with wild sounds reminiscent of nature calls from the violins. The music again quietens to very chilled sounds before moving directly into the second movement where the alto saxophone quietly emerges with birdlike calls against hushed strings in what is a magical moment.

The atmosphere slowly warms as the alto saxophone becomes slowly louder and richer with some fabulous playing by saxophonist John-Edward Kelly. There is a quiet transition to the third movement where a hushed string note is held before the alto saxophone joins with a melancholy melody.  Eventually the saxophone rises to an accompanied cadenza against low hushed strings where again there is superb playing by from John-Edward Kelly.  The orchestra becomes more prominent as the saxophone continues its virtuosic role leading directly to the fourth and last movement where the saxophone plays around the strings until the saxophone’s calls appear to retreat into the distance, further and further away amongst the surrounding strings as the movement and whole work fades into the distance.

This last Chamber Symphony is a particularly wonderful and atmospheric work but the two earlier works are both fine compositions with the Second Chamber Symphony also providing much atmosphere as well as stretching the strings in some marvellous playing.

With notes by the composer and a first rate recording this new release is highly recommended.

See also:

Why does Finland continue to produce so many fine composers?

A Trombone Concerto from Finland’s Kalevi Aho


1 comment:

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