Aho’s “Seidi” & Fifth Symphony

cover BIS-2336

AHO: Seidi, Concerto for Percussion & Orchestra.* Symphony No. 5 / *Colin Currie, perc; Lahti Symphony Orch.; Dima Slobodeniouk, cond / Bis SACD-2336

Bis’ Kalevi Aho series continues with this new release, and I for one feel it is just as important as their old Leif Segerstam series of releases which began c. 1974 and their more recent series, yet to be completed, of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Transcendental Etudes. Aho is clearly a major composer who, unlike Segerstam and Sorabji, is pretty much ignored by other labels.

I have extolled and described Aho’s music in detail so much in previous reviews that, in a sense, it would be excessive if I continued in this vein in the course of this review. His imaginative use of not only thematic materials but the mere creation of those themes and motifs, his unusual and colorful orchestration, and his equally creative sense of rhythm permeate Seidi, perhaps moreso because it is a percussion concerto. As a rule, I shy away from pieces for percussion simply because, except for members of the xylophone family, percussion normally cannot create or even play melodic lines, and this is true in this case as well. One of the very few percussionists I know of who actually did create melodic lines was the legendary jazz drummer Vic Berton, who played tuned tympani in a virtuosic fashion on a fairly large number of records made in the 1920s and ‘30s. Several others tried to emulate him but all failed for one simple reason: when you try to play melodic lines on the tymps, you will gradually lose pitch. It’s the nature of the beast. Berton corrected this problem as he was playing by attending but one tympani at a time while tuning the other—often behind his back! (There was once a film clip from the late 1920s of him playing with a band called Walter Roseler and his Capitoleans, but alas my VHS tape of this died and it has, to my knowledge, not been resuscitated on DVD.)

What surprised me about Seidi was Aho’s creation of fairly melodic lines in the second section of the work, during which percussionist Colin Currie does indeed turn to the xylophone at this point. There is a great deal of non-jazz-like syncopation on his part that I think a jazz-trained percussionist could have played with more of a “swing”: the potential is clearly there. By the third section of the concerto (bars 235-351), Aho creates swirling string and wind figures to work around the percussionist, who by this point has switched to some mallet instrument that produces a sort of “cupped” sound (if I read the liner notes correctly, this may be the membranophones). The orchestra’s percussion section also gets into the act, playing against edgy brass and string figures before the volume recedes and we hear Currie playing vibes. In Section 5 (bars 454-558) the music takes an odd turn towards Middle Eastern modes. A solo saxophone also meanders in and out of the orchestral texture, emerging at the oddest times. The music eventually fades away gradually with the solo percussionist and some soft, edgy string tremolos.

Aho’s Fifth Symphony, one of his earlier works (it was written in 1975-76), is described by the composer as “a vision of the incoherence of our existence. There is really nothing in the world or in our lives that is entirely complete and clear-cut – joy may be mingled with sorrow, grief with comicality, love with anger. People’s mutual interests often collide; communication problems and a lack of understanding arise. The relationships between nations are full of contradictions; different social ideologies or religions fight each other, often resulting in wars.” Thus, in the opening, we hear a clarinet playing a sort of comic-goofy serrated up-and-down figure while the rest of the orchestra expresses barely contained anger and aggression. There is no escaping the feeling that this work is related to the very militaristic-sounding Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. I wonder if he had it at least in the back of his mind when he wrote this piece. At the beginning of the second section, the horns play the famous funeral march used by Chopin while the rest of the orchestra is trying to cheer them up with syncopated rhythms and somewhat jolly figures. But then the full orchestra gets into the funeral march while the entire clarinet section screams its jolly little motif at them. A very strange work!

In the end, however, I felt that this symphony, unlike his others I’ve heard, was just a bit “gimmicky” despite Aho’s strong sense of construction and his vision of the complete line of the score that commands our attention. A split review, then; I liked Seidi very much but the Fifth Symphony quite a bit less.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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