Friday 15 March 2013

Piet Van Bockstal gives remarkable performances of works for oboe by Kalevi Aho on a new release from BIS Records

It is timely that a new release from BIS Records featuring music for oboe by Kalevi Aho (b.1949) should follow my recent review of a new Metier recording entitled New Music for Oboe that featured the new Howarth-Redgate oboe played by Christopher Redgate.
On this new BIS disc Piet Van Bockstal plays a Rigoutat Symphony oboe that itself has been described as having unbelievable beauty and volume of sound and flexibility that is ‘simply out of this world’.
BIS 1876
The Finnish composer Kalevi Aho is one of the finest composers 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, 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.

Of the many concertos that Aho has written, the Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra (2007) is one of the most attractive and innovative. It is coupled on this new release with Aho’s Solo IX for Oboe (2010) and his Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1984-85). Piet Van Bockstal is joined in the concerto by Martyn Brabbins and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and, in the Sonata for Oboe and Piano, by Yutaka Oya (piano).

The Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra opens with a plaintive melody for oboe and harp. Somewhat Arabic in flavour, the music has strange microtonal dissonances and the accompaniment remains austere with just pizzicato strings. Marked lamento, the movement slowly becomes faster as the fuller orchestra joins, weaving around the oboe melody. There is a beautiful tapestry of sounds with Aho’s trademark drum taps, as the music progresses, with the woodwind providing much of the accompaniment.  Aho avoids normal oboes in order to allow the soloist to stand out, using an oboe d’amour (lower than an ordinary oboe) and a heckelphone (a baritone oboe). Aho cleverly lets the quarter tone intervals merge with a lower or higher orchestral harmony that makes the music sound absolutely right. The movement ends quietly with some spectacularly lovely sounds from the oboe.

The presto second movement opens with Arabic darabuka and African djembe (types of goblet drums). The oboe soon enters in this rhythmic movement where the darabuka and djembe continue a regular off beat 10/16 rhythm still showing Arabic influences. There is a terrific, tumultuous central section full of forward momentum and a difficult exotic oboe part leading straight to the third movement.

Two trombones open the short Interludium: Adagio. Woodwind soon enter, then harp, before the two trombones return, very much with feel of a chorale. The oboe is silent throughout. The Cadenza is for solo oboe, though the movement opens with a plaintive melody for oboe against low strings quietly in the background. Soon the oboe is left alone to tackle a fiendishly difficult cadenza full of flourishes, quarter tones, short rapid staccato notes and dissonant quarter tone harmonies. Piet Van Bockstal proves to be a tremendous virtuoso.

The cadenza runs straight into the gloriously rich orchestral opening of the andante cantabile. As the oboe enters there is a melancholy, even tragic feel. After an interlude for oboe against strings, which is somewhat pensive, there is an orchestral climax. Staccato oboe notes, with whip, lead to a florid section for oboe, full of complex passages.

Aho wrote his Solo IX for Oboe to accompany the other works on this disc. After an oboe upward flourish there is a series of repeated upward scales ending with astringent quarter tone chords. Soon the oboe introduces a slow melody but the astringent chords interrupt. There follows a more rapid passage with some brilliant playing from Piet Van Bockstal before another melody appears, interrupted this time by short sharp notes. This leads to a rapid upwardly rising motif before a melody that again is interrupted by short stabbing phrases. This contrast between the two continues until, towards the end, the oboe plays a quiet little tune interspersed with odd harmonic phrases. This is a tremendous performance from Van Bockstal.

The four movement Sonata for Oboe and Piano is an earlier work. A long note from the oboe is held against repeated notes on the piano before the repeated notes continue as the oboe weaves around with unusual harmonic phrases. Strange oboe sounds are heard against loud, lower keyboard chords before the piano opens out to sporadically accompany the oboe in a more melodic section. There is a solo passage before crashing chords on the piano. A lighter section appears with the oboe dancing along over a rhythmic piano accompaniment. This soon stops as the oboe rises ever higher against piano chords. The lighter section re-appears before rapid oboe phrases over the piano lead to the second movement.

Sudden piano notes open the second movement before the oboe enters against these sudden chords in a hesitating melody. Soon the piano leads the oboe into a lovely melody though there are still quarter tone harmonies. The piano chords reappear but the melody returns. The melody becomes more syncopated on the piano as the oboe plays an increasingly anxious melody. Things quieten part way through and the melodic atmosphere returns in a lilting melody. The oboe harmonies grow more dissonant but still the melody continues. Towards the end, the music slows to rippling piano phrases and a single note on the oboe that drops down right at the end.

A two note motif opens the third movement with the oboe joining the motif quietly and tentatively. Soon the oboe plays longer phrases leading the piano to do the same. The music quickens to give a lively, insistent, theme. This leads to loud astringent chords for both players as the music gets ever more energetic. There are terrific dissonant calls on the oboe but the music quietens towards the end, concluding quietly on the piano.

The oboe opens the beautiful final movement with a slow melody against broadly spaced piano phrases in a lovely section. The music slowly develops with some lovely phrases for the oboe whilst the piano picks out a sensitive accompaniment. The work ends with a long quiet note held by the oboe in a quite magical moment.

Piet Van Bockstal gives some remarkable performances of these demanding works. The oboe concerto in particular is a lovely piece which grows in stature with each hearing. Pianist Yutaka Oya provides a sensitive and, at times, virtuoso contribution in the sonata and Martyn Brabbins and the wonderful Lahti Symphony Orchestra give an equally fine performance in the concerto.

The recordings made in the Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland (Concerto) and Potton Hall, Saxmundham, Suffolk, England (Sonata and Solo IX) are first class.

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