Aho’s Brass Concerti Recorded

Aho cover

AHO: Trombone Concerto.* Trumpet Concerto+ / *Jörgen van Rijen, tb; +Alain De Rudder, tpt; Antwerp Symphony Orch.; Martyn Brabbins, cond / Bis SACD-2196

In the 1970s, Bis’ modern composer of choice was Leif Segerstam, who I have written about previously. Nowadays it’s Kalevi Aho. Their music is radically different in style: Segerstam amorphous and flowing, like molten lava slowly pouring out of a volcano, while Aho is more tightly structured, yet both are immensely interesting.

My regular blog readers can find my other enthusiastic review of Aho’s music on the “Older Blog Posts” page. This is one more feather in his cap. The Trombone Concerto was written in 2010 on a personal commission from Jörgen van Rijen, who plays it here. The Trumpet Concerto has a more complicated history, beginning in 2006 when the London Brass Virtuosi asked Aho to write a work for them that could either have a concertante part for their ensemble or feature the trumpet as a soloist. Unfortunately, their grant was withdrawn a little while later (reasons not provided in the booklet), but Aho had already formulated some ideas for it. In 2009 the Finnish wind orchestra Sisu asked him to write a work for wind orchestra, and Aho suggested a trumpet concerto. Once announced, the Helsinki Guards Band offered to co-commission the work, and then followed a commission from the Royal Flemish Philharmonic (now the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra). It was completed in 2011.

At its beginning, the Trombone Concerto almost sounds like a Segerstam piece, but the rhythmic muscularity and penchant for form that marks so much of Aho’s work begins to come into focus. The solo trombone part is quirky to say the least, borrowing some techniques from jazz trombonists such as lip buzzes and portamento smears, yet there is no actual jazz feeling in the work. A surprisingly melodic strain enters the picture after the soloist’s first entrance, played by the strings while the soloist grumbles in his lower register. A brief French horn solo is also heard during this stretch. In the “Presto,” the strings play slashing, upward figures and the soloist plays difficult staccato and slurred figures around them. Aho continues to push the soloist technically, and although I could imagine this work played by such past jazz trombone virtuosi as J.J. Johnson, Tom Pedersen or Kai Winding, it’s difficult to think of another classical trombonist who could pull it off as well as van Rijen does here. Only in the third movement (“Adagio”) does Aho allow the trombonist to relax a bit and producer warm, round tones in half and whole notes.

My sole complaint about this concerto is that, for once, Aho seemed to be striving for technical effects and not so much for musical unity. True, he plays the tricky trombone part off some very interesting orchestral writing, particularly in the final movement, but it still seemed to me to be an “effects” concerto. Interesting, but not unified in concept. Towards the end, the clatter of percussion almost make it sound like a trombone-with-bongos concerto. Exciting and fun, but not (for me) a terribly logical composition. In this movement, Aho even calls on the soloist to use a mute to produce wah-wah effects.

Yet I found the Trumpet Concerto, which begins in the same sort of mysterious, amorphous vein, to be a much tighter piece in terms of thematic development as well as more imaginative in its use of themes and motifs. Perhaps this is because he doesn’t strive for as many different and difficult effects for the soloist, and thus is able to think of his lines as being just another series of motifs to be worked out. Now, this doesn’t mean that Aho doesn’t call for the trumpet to play virtuosically, only that his virtuoso lines are integrated better into the overall fabric of the music. (For all I know, the longer gestation of this concerto may have had something to do with its better structure.) Interestingly, Aho gets a little closer to jazz in the lively second-movement “Vivace,” yet once again eschews the special effects he threw into the trombone concerto. Note, for instance, the passage where the trumpet tosses off a group of rapid triple-tongued staccato notes while the saxophone plays long lines around him: the music blends better into the preceding and following material. I also liked the further interplay between the tenor sax and the orchestra, which works as a nice foil for the trumpet—but again, in a classical and not in a jazz context.

A mixed reaction, then: I found the Trombone Concerto interesting but more of a showoff piece while the Trumpet Concerto seemed to me a better piece overall. Certainly worth hearing, however, especially for the nice spatial effects for the orchestra which are captured perfectly by Bis’ SACD sound.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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