Aho’s Double & Triple Concertos

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AHO: Double Concerto for cor anglais, harp & orchestra.* Triple Concerto for violin, cello, piano & chamber orchestra + / *Dimitri Mestdag, cor anglais; Anneleen Lenaerts, harp; +Storioni Trio; Antwerp Symphony Orch.; Olari Elts, cond / Bis SACD-2426

This, the latest release in Bis’ Kalevi Aho series, focuses on his unusual concerti for multiple instruments, the first being for English horn and harp and th second for the usual combo of violin-cello-piano.

But the unusual instrumentation of the first of these isn’t the only surprise. The first movement opens so quietly that at first I thought that the music wasn’t even playing; I had to turn up the volume to “blast-your-ears” level just to hear some music. This had to be the quietest opening to any piece I’ve heard except for Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres. Moreover, even when you can hear it, the music moves in slow waves of sound. The orchestra literally sounds like waves washing up on a shore, and the isolated notes played by the cor anglais almost sounded like a wounded sea gull or albatross. And even when things get moving—and that’s not very much—the strangeness of the music continues. As an experiment in instrumental timbre it is indeed interesting, but as a piece of music I found it surprisingly rambling for Aho, whose music generally has a clear direction even when it’s edgy and experimental.

Things finally pick up around the 7:35 mark, and here the music sounds more like the Aho I know: string but asymmetrical rhythms, unusual but moving harmonies, and quirky melodic lines which coalesce into a dark, almost ominous whole. There is much less of the harp than the English horn, and when the harp does play it is simply to add a fillip of color and occasionally rhythm via strummed chords. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. It’s certainly not my favorite piece by Aho. Things pick up and become a bit more coherent in the second and third movements, but I just couldn’t escape the feeling that this concerto was more about effect than musical substance. Even the fourth-movement “Adagio,” in which the English horn plays dissonant chords on his instrument, did nothing for me. Well, not every piece written by a great composer is great. Just ask Beethoven about Wellington’s Victory.

Surprisingly, the triple concerto is exactly the opposite in style: a semi-tonal, even melodic work, and this too is not typical for Aho. In the liner notes, he explains that when his granddaughter Matilda was born he wrote a lullaby for her, and so this concerto is based on that lullaby which is based on the musical letters in Matilda’s name. (Stupid me! I didn’t even know that the letters M, T, I or L were in the musical scale!) This is the only Aho piece I’ve ever heard that could probably be played on classical radio stations, and probably will. It’s a nice piece, but for me only interesting in a few places, such as the second-movement “Presto” where he very cleverly weaves a complex polyphonic web of sound.

One reason I didn’t feel that it worked too well is that the piano trio seems to be used more for color than as concertante instruments. They play, and you can hear them, but their contributions are intermittent. They do not carry any particular musical line by themselves or attempt to weave it into the fabric of the orchestra; they are simply part of the orchestra. Again, clever but not really moving in any particular way despite the obvious energy of some of the score. Had I heard this piece without knowing the composer, I probably would never have guessed Aho.

As I say, there are interesting moments in both works, but the overall construction of each seems to me something of a patchwork quilt and doesn’t really gel overall. If you are an Aho completist, however, you may want this disc.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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