Kalevi Aho’s String Concerti

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AHO: Violin Concerto No. 2.* Cello Concerto Mo. 2+ / *Elina Vähälä, vln; +Jonathan Roozeman, cel; Kymi Sinfonietta; Olari Elts, cond / Bis SACD-2466

Although I admit to not having heard every modern composer out there, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard most of them (at least on records), and in my view Kalevi Aho is the greatest composer now living. I say that not because I’ve been persuaded to—in fact, no one has even asked my opinion on this matter—but because he has not only an extraordinary imagination and a good grasp of structure, but because, unlike so many composers out there (even the good ones), he uses far more than just one style of composing. One can go from piece to piece and sometimes be quite surprised that what you are hearing is the work of the same composer.

This new SACD presents two of his latter-day string concerti, the second one each for violin and cello. These have appeared after a gap of several decades since their predecessors: the first Cello Concerto was issued on CD in 1995 and the first violin concerto as far back as 1989! But Aho has continued to grow as an artist, and thankfully he is now finally getting his just due outside of Scandinavia whereas, in those earlier times, he wasn’t even a blip on the classical music radar. Of course, as a composer of modern music that is not easily digestible by the simple-minded, not even those earlier string concerti are often performed in concerts, so don’t hold your breath that these will be performed in a concert hall near you any time soon.

It’s not so much that Aho’s music is “tuneless,” as is often the case with avant-garde composers. On the contrary, he generally stays within tonal boundaries or at least keeps returning to tonality throughout his works, but his means of expression is often so unusual and, to many ears, so disorienting that they find it hard to grasp. The orchestral opening of the second Violin Concerto is one such example. It almost sounds Middle Eastern, particularly in its use of minor-key modal harmonies and that slithering sort of top line that one associates with the East, and when the solo violin enters it is not in a flurry of virtuosic passages but in yet another, quite different Eastern-sounding melodic line. This is yet one more example of what I mean when I say that you can’t pin Aho down stylistically, in addition to my statement that he continually surprises the listener. It’s just that 80% of classical listeners don’t want surprises. They want their “comfort music,” and this Aho resolutely refuses to do. In addition, there is his method of orchestration, emphasizing biting, sometimes astringent mixtures of wind instruments and the way he uses the upper strings. Of course, by now this kind of sound is not new; it harks back to the 1920s in the music of such composers as Stravinsky, Weill, Hindemith and others who used Stravinsky as a model; yet even so, because of his extraordinary musical imagination, Aho keeps finding new ways of producing this sound. I’d love to see some of his scores sometime in order to analyze it in a more technical fashion.

As the first movement continues, we eventually reach a cadenza, not at the end of the movement but rather right in the middle of it. Yet here, too, he undermines our expectations, as it is not a cadenza in the ruminative sort of style that everyone is accustomed to, but actually a complex development of the theme, just played a cappella by the soloist. After the orchestra returns, the violin continues over it for some time, but then when it drops out the orchestra takes over, here, surprisingly, being brass-and-tympani heavy. Cross-currents by the horns play across the lines of the trumpet section. Upon the violinist’s return, the orchestra is reduced to a few chords supporting a solo clarinet. You absolutely have to pay attention and stay on your toes when listening to an Aho composition.

In the cases of solo instrumental music, piano and voice, and chamber music performances, I really don’t feel that Bis’ SACD sonics make any significant change on the way the music reaches your ear. (Bis owner Robert von Bahr and I have been disagreeing on this point for several years now, but I’ve yet to see a review stating that it does make a difference in that kind of music.) It does, however, make a difference in certain opera recordings (such as the Monteverdi L’Orfeo) and in massed orchestral sounds, and Aho’s layered sound textures gain immeasurably as a result of the sonics. Perhaps I should also point out that our soloist here, Elina Vähälä, also employs a bright, lean tone that not only complements the orchestral sound but which I feel is necessary for this work. As a rule, I’ve never been much of a fan of the richer, thicker sound of German violinists like Anne-Sophie Mutter, good though she is. I lean more towards the Russian-French-Italian school of violin playing and, being Finnish in her heritage (though she was born in the U.S.A.), Vähälä, like most Scandinavian fiddlers, leans towards the Russian school, which is all for the better.

Returning to the music, I should point out that one of the reasons I love Aho’s music so much is that it is not at all cold. On the contrary, it is generally bristling with both emotion and energy. This is apparent in the “Adagio” movement where he suddenly bursts out of his reverie with fast, explosive passages for the orchestra which in turn drag the soloist into the fray. And this brings me to yet another reason why I like Aho’s music so much: he always has a “long view” of where his music is going and what it will do once it arrives there. He also has a great instinct for avoiding anything resembling a cliché, particularly in the endings of movements where even some really fine composers tend to either fall back on established patterns or, possibly worse, create their own pattern and then repeat it at least once in every piece they write. The last movement of this violin concerto is, by far, one of the most complex and rhythmically exciting pieces I’ve ever heard in my life, not only different from other Aho pieces but different from the first two movements of this concerto!

Perhaps due to its, lower, deeper sound, Aho treats the cello (at least in this work) very differently from the violin. His themes are more lyrical, set to slower tempi and emphasize a somewhat melancholy mood. Although his treatment of the orchestra is about the same, the scoring is lighter and emphasizes the melancholy of the first movement. Indeed, about two-thirds of the way through, Aho uses a very unorthodox blend of what sounds like three violas spaced against each other in half-tones and, at one point, in what sounds to me like quarter-tones. Here it is the second movement that is the fast one, but again the mood is less celebratory and more angst-filled than in the violin concerto. The fast cello solo passages sound hectic and frenzied; there are a few brief moments of repose, but the orchestra intervenes to re-inject a feeling of unease into the music. This second movement then blends seamlessly into the third, which is yet another “Adagio,” if anything even sadder and more forlorn than the first.

Once again in this work, soloist and conductor work hand-in-glove to produce an outstanding performance, but because of the sparser orchestration it is rally only the second movement that makes a great impact in regards to the SACD sound. Still, this is an excellent release. No Aho admirer would want to be without it.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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