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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Concertante for violin and orchestra (1971/73)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Songs and Dances of Death for bass and orchestra (1875-77/1984) arranged and orchestrated by Kalevi AHO
Matti Salminen (bass)
Jaakko Kuusisto (violin)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Recorded February 2001 (Symphony) and May 2000 (Songs and Dances) Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland DDD
BIS BIS-CD-1186 [59:41]

The forthcoming 2003 Proms season will see the British premiere of Kalevi Aho’s Ninth Symphony although his extraordinarily wide ranging symphonic cycle has in fact now reached twelve, the latest addition, Luosto Symphony, for large orchestra, chamber orchestra, eleven "mountain musicians" and two singers, being scheduled for its first performance on the slopes of Luosto mountain in Lapland in August 2003.

Like the Ninth Symphony, which features a concertante part for solo trombone, the Third Symphony is a hybrid symphonic concerto. Aho did indeed start out with the intention of writing a violin concerto before he realised that the piece was taking him in a slightly different direction. What we have therefore is very much a successful amalgam of the two forms, a work of considerable technical virtuosity for the soloist underpinned by an impressive sense of symphonic and organic structure that is capable of being heard clearly upon first acquaintance. In terms of language it is the ghost of Shostakovich that is most clearly evident, an influence that the composer freely acknowledges. Mahler is also evident on occasions and so, not surprisingly, is Sibelius. Even at this relatively early stage of his career however (he was only twenty two when he started work on the symphony) Aho is able to weld these influences into something that is his own, at the very least a work that demonstrates a powerful musical imagination at work.

Cast in four movements, the first is predominantly preoccupied with the soloist who enters after a quiet opening passage on percussion. A freely elegiac melody slowly gains in intensity until woodwind join well over three minutes into the movement. The central section that follows makes considerable use of high woodwind. There are also pre-echoes of the third movement funeral march to come before the sorrowful mood returns. The violin fades mysteriously into the distance with an accompaniment of percussion taking us back to the opening material. At no point in the opening movement do we hear the full orchestra. It is therefore with considerable effect that Aho unleashes his forces in the Prestissimo second movement with a vigorous brass dominated call to arms that plays an important part in the ensuing material. The orchestra dominate throughout this movement to the point that the soloist is lost in the cacophony. The violin’s urgent interjections are gradually overpowered until the opening call to arms returns. The music grows in brutality until the final bars, which are hammered out in rhythmic unison. The silencing of the soloist holds for the entire Lento third movement, which opens and closes with a sustained unison melody in the violins. The strings are subsequently joined by the woodwind in a passage where Sibelius is not too far away. The centre of the movement is essentially a funeral march, perhaps the closest the symphony comes to Mahler. The march builds inexorably to a dramatic climax amongst peeling bells before the music subsides once more into the unison violin melody with which it opened. Having been pushed aside by the orchestra during the two central movements the final movement, marked Presto, once again belongs to the soloist. He has an agile cadenza followed by an extraordinary passage in which the violin is pitted against martial percussion. Eventually the soloist is drowned out once again before the work progresses towards its quiet, consolatory conclusion.

Young Finnish violinist Jaakko Kuusisto is a more than able soloist in a part that is as demanding as you would expect of any full blown concerto. The ever growing reputation of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under the authoritative direction of Osmo Vänskä is justified by boldly confident playing invoking a vivid atmosphere.

Aho’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death came about as the result of a request for an arrangement suitable for performance by bass and orchestra. Aho explains that his orchestration was conceived around a "psychological instrumentation" whereby the specific instrumentation was decided upon following careful analysis of the poems. The appointment of instruments is suitably matched to the expressive content of the words. The orchestration certainly adds drama to the profoundly pessimistic nature of the poems, not least in the concluding song, The Field Marshal. The battle scene of the opening possesses particular presence. Matti Salminen proves a sonorous bass if not always the most subtly expressive and the orchestra are once again on fine form.

Overall, this is a disc not to be missed, both for the undoubted stature of the symphony and the quality of the recording. The BIS engineers have captured the orchestra and soloists with an admirably natural sense of space, orchestral perspective and sonic range. All in all it makes for an edge of the seat experience and I would be surprised if I hear a better produced orchestral recording this year. I have already have it earmarked as one of my discs of 2003.

Christopher Thomas

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