New Recording of Aho’s Wind Quintets

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AHO: Wind Quintets Nos. 1 & 2 / Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet / Bis SACD 2176

Every time I review a new CD of Kalevi Aho’s music, I say to myself, I’m going to give this a really good review but I may not want to keep it for my collection. And yet, I end up keeping everything I’ve reviewed so far by him because he is such a good composer.

In today’s music world, the term “good composer” is often given to those who write music with lots of startling effects: shrill winds, barking brass, pounding timpani, biting strings. Aho’s music has some of that, certainly, but more importantly, his music has structure and logic. It is music that may indeed begin with effects but soon moves on to new moods, new realms, and fine development. This is what sets him apart from his fellows and keeps me coming back for more.

These two works, written in 2006 and 2014 respectively, are perfect examples of what I mean. Both of the first two movements of the first quintet begin with startling, jagged figures—the expected gestures of the modern composer, in a somewhat Stravinskian vein—but the ear quickly gloms onto those figures that Aho chooses to develop, and the development process, and one is sometimes charmed, sometimes startled, but always engaged in the process.

I would go further: Aho is a composer who knows what he wants to say, and does so with no unnecessary notes or phrases. Everything in his music has a function and/or a meaning; and although he plays around with instrumental textures, and does so in an interesting and original manner, it is the line of music that one constantly hears. The five members of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, flautist Michael Hasel, oboist Andreas Wittmann, clarinetist Walter Seyfarth, hornist Fergus McWilliam and bassoonist Marion Reinhard, are evidently all outstanding players on their various instruments. Their tone, attack and sense of musicality are honed to an outstanding level, yet although their excellence does indeed register with the listener, it is the music that takes center stage. Aho writes virtuosic passages—witness the stunning French horn outbursts in the third movement of the first quintet—but again, it’s always about what he has to say in the music.

As in his previous pieces that I’ve reviewed, Aho has a proclivity for very bright sonorities. His music is also quite emotional, balancing raw energy with humor and sadness when called for. The fourth movement of his first quintet, surprisingly, is focused on low pitches for the instruments, providing a rich blend, as well as a somewhat sad-sounding “Andante, con tristezza.” There’s a certain kinship here to “Catacombs” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, modern style.

Interestingly, the quietude with which the first quintet ends leads into the first movement of the second, yet although this music is also written in a slow tempo (“Ruhig beginnend – Bewegter – Meno mosso”), its mood is rather more querulous and pastorale than the somewhat dolorous finale of the first. Halfway through this movement, Aho ups both the tempo and mood, yet oddly this faster section is more angst-filled than the first, with astringent close chords for the flute and clarinet and choppy rhythmic figures played against them by the horn and bassoon. The second movement, “Schnell, wild” is a riot in rhythmic figures playing against one another. The listener may at first hear this as musical chaos, but once again Aho has a purpose to his method. Indeed, I would characterize the entire second quintet as more dramatic despite its quiet, lyrical moments—and yet, that all changes in the surprisingly playful last movement, which even more surprisingly ends not in a bang, but a whisper.

This is an outstanding recording of some really fine music. Strongly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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