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Briefly Noted: Organ Music by Aho

available at Amazon
K. Aho, Works for and with Organ, J. Lehtola et al.

(released on July 8, 2014)
BIS-1966 | 62'08"

available at Amazon
K. Aho, Alles Vergängliche (organ symphony), J. Lehtola

(released on September 18, 2012)
BIS-1946 | 69'01"

available at Amazon
K. Aho, Symphony No. 8 (with organ), H.-O. Ericsson, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, O. Vänskä

(released on September 27, 1994)
BIS-CD-646 | 60'36"
Most of the music of Kalevi Aho to have reached our ears live is due to his Finnish colleague Osmo Vänskä's appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra: the Symphonic Dances in 2007 and the clarinet concerto just this year. Vänskä has championed Aho's music at least since the early 1990s, when Aho was composer-in-residence for the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, where Vänskä was music director. On disc, BIS has recorded vast swaths of Aho's music, which I am gradually getting to know. Aho's first major work for organ was his eighth symphony, which is centered on the instrument, not exclusively in a solo role but also as a complement to a broad range of orchestral textures (add this to my wishlist for the NSO and its new concert hall organ). In many ways Aho picked up where Shostakovich left off, with music that is capable of biting dissonance or sweeter film-score harmonies, animated by pleasing rhythm (the eighth symphony is centered on three sinister scherzos, the middle one powered by clanging percussion), and often embracing traditional forms.

At the same time as the eighth symphony, Aho composed the Three Interludes for Organ for the same organist, Hans-Ola Ericcson, drawing on and extending the three interludes after the scherzos in the symphony. The first two are quirky, sort of wandering pieces, here given colorful, occasionally space music-ish registrations by organist Jan Lehtola on the the 1907/2008 Åkerman and Lund organ of the St. Johannes Kyrka, in Malmö, Sweden. The third interlude, longer and more substantial, has a shocking, vast introduction. Lehtola is assisted here by Magnus Berglöf, who holds down the hushed B major chord, a harmony associated by Aho with the blueish light he experienced during a trip to the Arctic Circle, that is sustained through a large part of the work.

Lehtola gave a performance of Aho's eighth symphony in 2005, and the composer also created a solo work for him, an extended organ-symphony, modeled on the sort of piece pioneered by French composers in the 19th century. It is a demanding work, lasting almost an hour, with two slower movements crowned by double fugues, the opposition of subjects possibly signifying the unification of male and female in the heavenly conclusion of Goethe's Faust, an interpretation that could be inferred from the title, Alles Vergängliche. The second fugue brings together both of the preceding fugue's themes with its own and also makes reference to the other movements. One of the things Aho has learned over the years composing sixteen symphonies (and counting) is how to manage large forms, and the arc traced especially by the end of the third movement and the agglomeration of ideas in the fourth movement makes for thrilling listening.

The latest installment of Aho's music for BIS features Lehtola in a brief survey of other works for and with organ, set to be released officially next week. The disc includes some harmless but inconsequential wedding and other church pieces from the 1970s and 80s; the lovely and complex Quasi una fantasia, a duet with French horn; and Aho's daring completion of the Contrapunctus XIV from Bach's Art of the Fugue, made for Lehtola, who performs all of this music ably and with inventive registrations. A more recent piece, Song of the Earth from 2002, is quite saccharine and plain -- combining violin and oboe with organ -- but it could be effective in performance. One of the most successful pieces is relatively early, the Ludus solemnis (Solemn Game) from 1978, composed for the installation of a new organ in a church in Aho's home town of Forssa, which in a very short space allows the player to test the full dynamic range and sonority of an instrument.

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