*KALEVI AHO: Nineteen Preludes; Three Small Pieces; Two Easy Pieces for Children; Sonatina; Solo II; Sonata – Sonja Fraki, piano – BIS

*KALEVI AHO: Nineteen Preludes; Three Small Pieces; Two Easy Pieces for Children; Sonatina; Solo II; Sonata – Sonja Fraki, piano – BIS multichannel SACD BIS-2106, 73:22 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Who is Kalevi Aho, you ask? Well, despite creating five operas, sixteen symphonies, twenty-one concertos, and much vocal, chamber, and piano music, I’ll bet his name remains unknown to the vast number of even informed classical fans. This is a shame, for it is my opinion that one day he will be recognized as one of the greats currently composing, and not just in his native Finland, where he studied violin and composition at the Sibelius Academy, Einojuhani Rautavaara being his primary composition teacher.

I first came across his music on Karl Haas’s Adventures in Good Listening years ago on public radio, his Sonatina, and was immediately hooked. Here was music that espoused highly-charged rhythmic energy and thoroughly-crafted structures, notable even in this piece designed for younger performers. This led to a further exploration of his oeuvre, one that resulted in the exciting discovery of so many varied and equally engrossing works. Aho also was encouraged by many to continue his creation of pieces designed for younger players, as his Two Easy Pieces demonstrate.

The Nineteen Preludes stem from his pre-instructional phase while Aho was still a teenager. Would that most youth of that age could create like this, pieces full of life and color, and smack full of the influence of Schumann, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. The Three Small Pieces from 1971 were concurrent with the composer’s Third Symphony. The orchestral work got in the way of what was supposed to be a complete set of etudes, of which these three are all that emerged, resonant and bold statements of great clarity and forcefulness.

Solo II was created as a competition work for the Maj Lind Piano Competition. As expected in such a work, it covers a variety of technical challenges and contrasts, fully expressive and replete with all sort of interpretative possibilities. The best piece here, the Sonata from 1980, remains his most important piano work. It is intentionally full of technical and interpretative trials that deliberately set out to infuse the traditional sonata form with all those elements that history has conditioned us to expect. The work is beautifully proportioned and with a perfectly-judged, even brilliant, fade-out ending. Atonal, you say? Yes and no—it really is, but doesn’t sound it!

Sonja Fraki knows perhaps more about Kalevi Aho’s piano music than any other performer, receiving her Doctoral Degree from the Sibelius Academy with a dissertation based on the composer’s work. She exhibits her considerable talents mainly in European venues (hopefully that will change soon), and has a particular bent toward contemporary compositions. Her playing here is outstanding, an immediate and vibrantly communicative effort that displays to good effect her understanding of Aho’s music, supported by fantastic surround sound captured by the BIS engineers. Don’t miss this one, and do make the acquaintance of this composer.

—Steven Ritter

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