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CD Review

Kalevi Aho

  • Symphony #9 for Trombone & Orchestra
  • Concerto for Cello & Orchestra
Christian Lindberg, trombone
Gary Hoffman, cello
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS CD-706 DDD 61:59
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The music of Finnish composer Kalevi Aho (b. 1949) gives you more decibels per minute than most. (One thinks of the orchestra whose members demanded workers' compensation for playing a new piece by Christopher Rouse!) This is the third disc in BIS's ongoing series of Aho's complete works, and it gives good value for money with respect to both volume and quality of sound.

Aho finished his newest symphony last year, and this recording presents it with the musicians who premièred it. Listening to the Ninth Symphony is like taking a ride in Dr. Who's TARDIS, if said time-travel machine has a loose connection and keeps hurling you back into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The indefatigable Lindberg is asked to alternate between a modern instrument and a copy of a sackbut from 1676, and in each of the symphony's three movements, Aho makes stylistic allusions to Handel, Gabrieli, and other Baroque composers. These allusions start innocently enough, but they tend to reappear in ever more garish orchestral dress. Imagine Ravel's La Valse written in the style of Corigliano's First Symphony, and then regress the product about two hundred years, and that should give you an idea of what much of Aho's symphony sounds like. The final movement has a literally breathtaking (at least for Lindberg) cadenza that makes use of multiphonic playing techniques, which seem to involve singing into the mouthpiece. In spite of its outlandish features, the Ninth Symphony is yet another fine work from this composer, as heavy as most of them, but not as heavy-hearted as some.

The cataclysmic Cello Concerto was written ten years earlier. Here, Aho has composed an Armageddon whose outcome is total annihilation. Aho's instrumentation is dense and complicated; besides the cello and the main orchestra, an organ and an "anti-orchestra" (accordion, mandolin, saxophone, tuba, and side drum) also play important roles in the musical conflict. The two movements each last a little less than a quarter of an hour. The concerto's opening is benign enough, but violent outbursts soon break the peace and recur at frequent intervals. Some of these outbursts might eject you out of your listening chair - try the opening of the second movement. The concerto's coda is quiet but hardly peaceful. In it, the sonic landscape is figuratively littered with broken instruments that mankind has forgotten how to play, or no longer cares to. The "world" of Aho's Cello Concerto ends with squawking, squeaking, and bitter snickering. This is a powerful, uneasy listening experience.

Aho's music is cruelly difficult to play. Fortunately, his relationship with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Osmo Vänskä, is both long-standing and understanding, and these well-played performances are authentic. Lindberg and Hoffman are impressive in their solo roles. The dynamic range of BIS's recording is staggering, and the program notes tell us everything that they should. I haven't been disappointed in Kalevi Aho yet, and this new disc is an exciting addition to his discography.

Copyright © 1996, Raymond Tuttle