Discovering Kalevi Aho’s Horn & Theremin Concerti

CD

AHO: Concerto for Horn & Chamber Orchestra. Acht Jahresietzen (Eight Seasons), Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra / Annu Salminen, Fr horn; Carolina Eyck, Theremin; Lapland Chamber Orchestra; John Storgårds, cond / Bis SACD-2036

I tell you, entering the sound world of Kalevi Aho is like entering a labyrinth in Alice’s Wonderland. It is strange but intriguing, wondrous and bizarre all at the same time. Nothing I’ve yet heard by him sounds the least bit “normal,” and certainly does not meet one’s expectations. His Chamber Symphonies, as I stated in my review of them, are almost free fantasias written for orchestra and, in the case of the third, practically a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra.

The same is true of the works presented here. Aho’s Horn Concerto does indeed place the solo instrument front and center in the sound texture, yet the highly dramatic, almost sinister-sounding music that swirls around it resembles a sea tide running backwards more than a standard concerto. Aho always seems to be more concerned with texture and feeling than form, with the result that his music penetrates deeper into his psyche than almost any other modern composer (with the possible exceptions of Leif Segerstam, John Pickard and one or two others). The five linked sections of this “concerto” continue down a dark path; there is none of the jollity of Mozart’s or Strauss’ horn concerti here, but rather edgy string figures, swirling winds and a sense that you may not get out of this labyrinth and back into the light. As Aho puts it in the liner notes:

The Horn Concerto differs from my other concertos in that the soloist does not stand in front next to the conductor but moves around several times during the course of the work. The horns first entries are heard from backstage. After that the soloist becomes visible and plays from behind the orchestra, moving gradually from left to right while playing. In the end, the hornist leaves the stage again. This gives the work a ritualistic character as if the solo horn brings something from afar to the audience and orchestra and, when all is said and done, disappears from view.

Among the special features of the solo part in this single-movement concerto are micro-intervals. Of the highest overtones on the horn, the seventh, eleventh and thirteenth are approximately a quarter-tone too low. This makes it possible for the horn to play even quarter-tone scales in the highest register, as these impure overtones are combined with pure overtones of the horn in the same register.

Pretty wild, huh? But the music is even wilder in the hearing than in the description of it. Even the quiet, lyrical passages, more tonal in character than the louder ones, have a certain unease about them. Aho is clearly trying to draw the listener into a sound world where normal parameters of music are brushed aside.

And even in the case of so strange a work as the Theremin concerto, titled Eight Seasons, Aho was also writing for a specific virtuoso performer, in this case Carolina Eyck. While playing the Theremin part in Lena Auerbach’s First Symphony with the Washington National Orchestra, contrabassoonist Lewis Lipnick recommended that Eyck listen to Aho’s Contrabassoon and Tuba Concerti and ask the composer to write something for her. This is the result.

EyckA cello and a bass actually dominate the first section of the piece, titled Harvest, until Eyck enters on the Theremin. Her playing is simply extraordinary; Clara Rockmore would be very proud of her. She displays an extraordinary range on the instrument as well as complete command of such musical devices as portamento and glissando, which are very hard to control in pitch. She’s also good at changing dynamics, something that earlier Theremins were virtually incapable of producing. It is in the fourth section, Christmas Darkness, that Eyck performs wordless singing around her Theremin playing. Plain and simple, she is astonishing. In the fifth section, Winter Frost, she plays upward and downward-moving whoops on the instrument to simulate a winter storm. The next section, Crusted Snow, is as good an example as any of Aho’s composing genius. He starts with an idea for a mood, writes logically constructed themes and variants,and then works a specific instrumental texture to fill it in. In this way, he consistently appeals to both one’s emotion and intellect.

The music becomes more agitated as the “seasons” progress, and Crusted Snow moves into Melting of the Ice and then Midnight Sun. Quietude finally returns in the final segment, Midnight Sun, and only here does Aho achieve something like relaxation in his score. Eyck again sings wordlessly as she plays in this finale.

This is tremendously interesting music, brilliantly performed and exceptionally recorded. Go for it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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