Aho’s Remarkable Chamber Symphonies


AHO: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 3* / *John-Edward Kelly, a-sax; Tapiola Sinfonietta; Stefan Asbury, *Jean-Jacques Kantorow, cond / Bis SACD-1126

Having been greatly impressed by Kalevi Aho’s soprano saxophone concerto and other works which I reviewed earlier this week, I decided to explore some of his other music, and one of the first things I hit upon was this stupendous album of chamber symphonies issued in 2012.

These are no ordinary chamber symphonies. They are not light, airy or inconsequential music. They have bite and drive; they are complex and interesting. Aho starts none of them with the idea of progressing in a comfortable vein, but rather with the purpose of simply using a chamber orchestra to project his startling and innovative musical ideas. Thus, even though the first chamber symphony begins in quietude, it quickly morphs into something fast, edgy and difficult. Aho is interested in music, not cheap mood music. This piece would never be heard on an American classical radio station because it has too much dissonance and too much bite. It’s not musical bullshit “for your body, mind and spirit.” It’s a shard of glass with an edge that cuts like a knife.

And as good as the first chamber symphony is, the second is even better: wilder, more imaginative, less predictable. The upper strings slither up and down in portamento, the lower strings grumble and complain, and when we move into the slow movement the orchestra pulls back from the sound barrier and becomes moody, even a bit forbidding. The portamento slides continue in the violins, but less frequently and with more purpose; they are now a part of the music’s evolution. Towards the end of the movement, the violas play short, sharp, edgy motifs before the music moves into the energetic but rhythmically irregular third movement. Here the upper strings skitter on the edge of their bows like frightened mice before falling away to silence, followed by sustained tones by the cellos and violas, during which the violins join them for a moment of respite from the fray.

This yin-yang pull of forces also marks the first movement of the third chamber symphony, a startling piece that uses string portamento in a way that suggests Oriental instruments. This, the longest of the three at 27 minutes and four movements, is also the most complex. Aho fully exploits his forces here, including a forlorn clarinet and an alto sax which play solo in the sad second movement. It’s interesting, to me, that Aho uses the saxophone almost like a bassoon in context of the music, ignoring all allusions to the instrument’s long association with jazz. He also pushes the instrument to its limits at both ends of the range, and since a saxophone never really blends with any other section other than more saxophones, it sticks out in this movement.

The third movement, however, begins even slower and more mysteriously than the second. Some of the basic material remains the same, but Aho disguises this somewhat in his sparseness of both notes and instrumental texture. The alto sax sings forlornly over the background of soft strings, answered by a solo viola; they combine sounds, going back and forth between them. Later on in the movement the alto cackles, first in its extreme upper register and then in the more common mid-range, occasionally using slap-tongue technique to make its points. At this point the movement becomes quite agitated, with strings and the alto sax arguing and vying for attention. Eventually the orchestra falls away, leaving the alto to play a bizarre sort of cadenza, but the basses rumble again underneath which leads to the fourth movement. Here soft strings play atonal themes in their upper register while the alto sax weaves its way in and out of the texture. All of which begs the question: is this really a “chamber symphony” or an alto sax concerto? Aho calls it a symphony, but one could make a case for the latter as well. As is common for Aho, the finale dies away into nothingness.

This is an extraordinary album. Words really do fail to do justice to it. This music has to be heard to be fully appreciated.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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