KALEVI AHO: Minea; Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra; Symphony No. 15 – Eero Munter, doublebass/ Lahti Sym./Osmo Vänskä, Jaako Kuusisto, Dima Slobodeniouk cond. – BIS 1866 multichannel SACD, 78:19 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/10/2013) ****:
I have followed the symphonic output, in particular, of Finnish composer Kalevi Aho for many years now and I am never let down or bored. Aho 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.
This collection begins with Minea, a concert opener written for Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra. This is a work that evokes a variety of Eastern cultures and sound systems. The music explores Indian ragas, Japanese shakuhachi music, Arabian rhythms and Eastern scales. Aho explains that his aim has been to expand his own sound world with elements of other classical music cultures, and to try to “view the Western musical tradition from other perspectives.” This is a broad, dramatic and fully engaging work that would open any concert in a captivating manner.
Aho writes in a hard-to-define ‘whatever conveys’ style that is also not afraid to resemble a more traditional Romanticism. I love all of his symphonies and find that this Symphony No. 15, from 2009, is something of the latter. Aho described his work as ‘My apotheosis of the dance’, in something of a reference to older works with similar structural feel; such as those by Weber or Ravel. Containing two dance movements and using rhythm as a central element, the score calls for numerous percussion instruments; including non-Western ones such as bongos, darbuka, djembe and the riqq, an Arabian tambourine. I genuinely enjoyed the sharp contrast in mood between the movements, such as the mysterious, moody Interludio that leads without a pause into the wildly kinetic Musica strana finale. I think this is one of Aho’s most interesting and “accessible” of his symphonies.
The Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra is a very interesting work as well. Aho acknowledges that, in writing this work, two important characteristics of doublebass needed to be kept in mind. First, the instrument, as a solo voice, can easily be overwhelmed by the orchestra so the forces have to be kept lean. Second, the doublebass is a large and bulky instrument that does not respond to fast technical playing to the extent that a violin or cello would, so one should be careful what is written for the soloist to do. Aho relied on his own somewhat limited ability on the instrument to “test” passages before he considered them playable. The concerto uses the solo instrument in highly unusual combinations, for instance in the two accompanied cadenzas – the first a pizzicato duet with the harp, and the second a trio with two percussionists. Bassist Eero Munter is an amazing player and the work does show off his skills in this very imaginative work quite well.
If you already know and admire the music of Kalevi Aho, as I do, this is really a “must have.” For those not yet familiar, this disc is, perhaps, a good introduction for this music is exciting and colorful but speaks to a larger audience than some of Aho’s other works might.