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AHO: “Ludus Solemnis – Music for and with Organ” = Quasi una Fantasia; Epilogue; Contrapunctus XIV; Wedding March I; Wedding March II; Wedding Music; Ludus Solemnis; In Memoriam; Song of the Earth – Soloists/Jan Lehtola, organ – BIS

KALEVI AHO: “Ludus Solemnis – Music for and with Organ” = Quasi una Fantasia; Epilogue; Contrapunctus XIV; Wedding March I; Wedding March II; Wedding Music; Ludus Solemnis; In Memoriam; Song of the Earth – Petri Komulainen, horn/Jussi Vuorinen, trombone/Kaija Saarikettu, violin/Anna-Kaisa Pippuri, oboe/Jan Lehtola, organ at St. Paul’s Church, Helsinki, Finland – BIS Records multichannel  SACD BIS 1966, 62:08 [Distr. by Naxos] (7/08/14) ***:

Finnish composer Kalevi Aho always has a very unique approach to composition and his voice is exciting and eclectic all at once. Many of his earlier works are dense, complicated and freely use elements of atonality. Many of his later works seem to fall into that lush, exotic sound typified by his contemporaries, Rautavaara (with whom he studied) or Kajia Sariaaho. The current collection is not so much of the exotic, sultry variety of many of his orchestral works but is a bit more dense, cinematic and gripping in its effect. Truth be told, some of these pieces are just a tad unnerving and, yet, they are all fascinating.

From the press materials for this release, we learn that this disc is a companion release to Jan Lehtola’s previous recording of Aho’s vast organ symphony Alles Vergängliche. The present disc includes five smaller pieces by Aho for organ solo, as well as three compositions for organ and one or two other instruments (most commonly brass instruments.) I personally found the works with brass the most compelling. The opening Quasi una Fantasia for organ and horn is the longest work here and, for me, makes for a gripping, somewhat ominous beginning. The French horn line is virtuoso material and this is a real mood setting work that I enjoyed a lot. I felt positively about the fairly short Epilogue for trombone and organ as well; it is not as commanding as the Fantasia but is a very fine work with a bit of dirge feel to it.

For the thousands of times that we have heard or heard of traditional wedding ceremonies wherein the church organist plays Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” from Lohengrin as the bride processes down the aisle, Aho’s three “Wedding” pieces are sure to provide a reaction. First performed at the wedding of his sister, the two brief wedding marches were the first pieces that Aho wrote for the organ, and like the later Wedding Music they are kept in a mainly tonal idiom as the composer writes in his own liner notes, “I did not want to distract attention from the bride and groom, but rather to create a suitable atmosphere”. (I think I agree with this assessment but these works are, none the less, quite a bit different from what we might expect.)

Ludus solemnis (the “solemn game”) was composed for the inauguration of a new organ, so Aho was writing for an instrument he had not yet heard. In imagining the orchestral sounds that he wanted to hear from it I think the piece largely succeeds. Aho faced a similar challenge in writing In Memoriam for the fairly small-sized organ of the chapel where the funeral of the author Juha Mannerkorpi took place.

I found it revealing and touching that Aho composed his Song of the Earth for organ, violin and oboe for the funeral of his own father in 2002. It is an expectedly poignant work that surprised me as being very unlike most of what I had heard from him before; very personal to be sure.

I have to admit that Aho’s own completion of Bach’s quadruple fugue in Contrapunctus XIV from Die Kunst der Fuge really didn’t do much for me. Bach is wonderful (although not my personal source of ecstasy) but this work – of course – is Bach; not really Aho. It exists as a very interesting and skillful exercise in my mind but not much else.

If one is not familiar at all with the work of Kalevi Aho, I cannot honestly say go and get this. I would first listen to any of his symphonies or his atmospheric Violin Concerto. Organ music is a bit of a niche market and something of an acquired taste. For those who like good organ playing and discovering new, highly creative works this is definitely for you.

—Daniel Coombs

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