Kalevi Aho’s Chamber Music

cover - BIS-2186

AHO: Prelude, Toccata & Postlude.3.4 Lamento.1,2 Halla.1,4 Solo Violin Sonata.1 In memoriam Pehr Henrik Nordgren.1 Piano Sonata No. 2, “Hommage à Beethoven”4 / 1Jaakko Kuusisto, 2Pekka Kuusisto, vln; 3Samuli Peltonen, cel; 4Sonja Fräki, pno / Bis SACD-2186

Kalevi Aho has apparently caused a stir at a major American classical music magazine which shall remain nameless. Their editor ordered a reviewer to not waste his time reviewing any of Aho’s music because, in his view, this was just ephemeral junk music that will be forgotten 50 years from now, whereas Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Debussy are “forever.”

This brings up an interesting aesthetics issue. Just how much modern music has stuck to the standard repertoire? Not a lot, to be sure, when compared to the so-called “classics,” but that is not the fault of the music. It is, rather, the fault of audiences, most of which have neither an education in music nor good enough ears to pick up what’s going on in music.

One of the reasons why Beethoven, for instance, has withstood the test of time is that most of his music has Melodies and regular rhythm. This is true of most of the standard repertoire, especially that maudlin drip, Chopin. But whereas Chopin entered the standard rep early and has stayed there despite its maudlin drippiness because it is Tuneful and Rhythmic, Beethoven actually had a harder time of it. His music was scarcely known outside of Austria and Germany until several years after his death, and it only traveled throughout Europe thanks to the proselytizing of it by Franz Liszt. Moreover, many of Beethoven’s greatest pieces took seemingly forever to establish themselves. Everyone loved the “Pathétique,” “Moonlight” and “Waldstein” sonatas, but many of the later ones were strangers to the concert hall, particularly the last three. The “Missa Solemnis” has never really been a popular work, even today, and the late string quartets were pretty much ignored for more than a century after his death. And who played the music of Alkan before Egon Petri and Raymond Lewenthal did so in the 1950s? No one. Except for the “Rakoczy March” (a borrowed tune) and occasional performances of the Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz was pretty much a stranger until Arturo Toscanini started conducting his Romeo et Juliette, Harold en Italie and parts of La damnation de Faust in the 1930s and ‘40s. It took Charles Munch to establish most of his great works, and Colin Davis in the late 1960s and ‘70s to establish his operas. A select few Mahler symphonies were played sporadically by the likes of Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, Otto Klemperer and Dmitri Mitropoulos, but it took Jascha Horenstein and Leonard Bernstein to establish him as a core repertoire composer starting in the late 1950s.

The point I am making is that no truly original composer was a fan favorite in his lifetime, but of course the situation is far more serious for modern composers. Nowadays a select few, such as Thomas Adès and Kaaja Saariaho, have managed to procure powerful PR firms to push them like Swiss cheese in the marketplace. Some of their music is quite good, but an almost equal portion of it is pretty bad…yet they still garner more “face time” in the concert hall than many others, including Kalevi Aho.

Nonetheless, lack of visibility does not equate to a lack of quality. Perhaps the case of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji is the most extreme case. His music is of an extraordinarily high quality, but it is entirely pianistic and consists almost wholly of excruciatingly long pieces that take between one and eight hours to perform. Harry Partch has had a partial resuscitation in recent years, Alkan is now accepted as a core composer, but Julián Carillo is still ignored; Erwin Schulhoff and Mieczysław Weinberg have exploded in recent decades while Karol Szymanowski seems to go in and out of acceptance; George Antheil has suddenly seemed to have found his place, yet a whole group of outstanding American composers, contemporaries of the ever-popular Aaron Copland—Roy Harris, Paul Creston, William Schuman and Walter Piston—have fallen to the wayside only because people are unfamiliar with them, and unfamiliarity breeds contempt among classical concertgoers.

Aho’s music, as I said in my very first review of his music on this blog (November 8, 2017), is a bit thorny but by no means unapproachable. “He works in soft pastels rather than bright primary colors,” I wrote; his orchestration is delicate, his mode of development logical but based on whole-tone scales and chromatics. It veers towards tonality but somehow never quite arrives there.”

Until now I’ve only heard Aho’s orchestral works, but here is an entire program of his chamber music, and the aesthetic is the same. In fact, in the opening Prelude I even detected a nod to the jazz idiom in his use of strong syncopations, something that several Scandinavian and Eastern European composers have been doing in recent years, while the Toccata is a whirlwind of perpetual motion, the cellist playing a rapid series of repeated notes played with the edge of the bow while the pianist scurries madly up and down the keyboard. Then suddenly we hear the Postlude, a sad, melancholy melody of the sort that Scandinavians seem to be able to turn out in bulk, and this piece is resolutely tonal, even a bit Romantic in scope and feeling. In my mind, however, I wondered if it really fit with the other two pieces, since it seemed to be in an older style that didn’t quite jibe with the others.

Lamento, for two violins, is also rather tonal but, although in a slow tempo, not as Romantic as the just-concluded Postlude. Somehow, Aho seems to channel Sibelius in this music, pushing the tonal envelope just enough to make us realize that this is indeed a modern work without going out on a limb. Yet there is originality and great invention in this piece; Aho takes us to little corners and crevices in the music that we would never have thought of on our own. Each turn of phrase is interesting and different from those preceding and following it. Occasionally, Aho “slides into pitch” on certain notes. One could say much the same about Halla, a work for violin and piano. I always thought of Sibelius as a “gateway” composer between overt Romanticism and the more adventurous world of Scriabin, Bartók and Stravinsky, and this piece by Aho fits that definition. In this piece, however, Aho uses more chromatic and whole-tone harmonic movement, hallmarks of his orchestral works. Towards the end, however, all feeling of tonality collapses, and we end on a soft, bitonal phrase.

The Solo Violin Sonata contains echoes of both Sibelius and Eugene Ysaÿe. The music flies up and down the fingerboard of the violin before receding from the sound barrier with softer, slower pizzicato passages. Despite the fact that the first movement is titled “Tempo di ciacona,” there is only a superficial resemblance to the chaconnes of J.S. Bach. Later on, this movement becomes quite wild, with the violin virtually exploding in wild musical ideas while still maintaining a sense of development and proportion. The slow second movement, on the other hand, has that slightly chilly, slightly melancholy Nordic sound about it, as does the opening “Grandioso” portion of the third movement. Later on, descending chromatics take over the sonic landscape. By contrast, In Memoriam Pehr Henrik Nordgren is stark, the music almost allegorical in its phrasing and progression.

The Piano Sonata No. 2, “Hommage à Beethoven,” is based on the “Hammerklavier” Sonata but takes the phrases in entirely different directions. Aho has some fun with the music, playing with it in his mind and transferring those thoughts to paper to be played. Interestingly, although Aho plays around with the melodic line and harmony, he replicates Beethoven’s rhythms quite faithfully. The second movement, however, is quite original, departing substantially from Beethoven’s work. The third movement simulates Beethoven’s fast movement of the “Hammerklavier,” but again plays around with harmony, adding bitonal touches, and develops in Aho’s own way.

Although I do not feel that the music on this disc is not quite as vital or startlingly original as Aho’s orchestral works, it is a fascinating glimpse into his musical mind and an interesting side dish to his main courses.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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