I have been mightily impressed by much of Kalevi Aho’s
work via BIS recordings, including concertos for unusual instruments
An excellent overview of these releases by Dan Morgan can be
Massive works for organ can be something of a mixed blessing,
but with such a track record this has to be worth taking a look
at. The Three Interludes followed on from Aho’s
Eighth Symphony, and these pieces are derived from the interludes
in this symphony, which features the organ as a solo instrument.
The first two interludes are certainly display pieces, as the
composer describes, with massive sonorities growing out of exploratory
counterpoint in the opening of Interlude I, and the second
developing an even more orchestral sound, saving its fff
volume for the approach to a climactic C major chord followed
by a ruminative postlude. Interlude III is the most organ-like
in its massive chord progressions, but the centre of the piece
aims to make time stand still, its material unfolding over a
5-minute long sustained quiet B major chord, the notes held
down by an assistant organist. This luminous sonority was suggested
by the endless blue-tinged June light experienced by the composer
in the Arctic.
The Symphony for Organ was written in response to a suggestion
by the organist on this recording, Jan Lehtola, again after
a performance of the Eighth Symphony. Acknowledging the heritage
of Widor and Vierne when it comes to organ symphonies, Aho refers
rather to orchestral symphonies as his model in this work, the
development of the musical material having direct relationships,
and a final synthesis of the entire journey appearing as a conclusion.
The subtitle Alles Vergängliche, ‘All that
is Perishable’, comes from Goethe’s Faust,
and is an indicator of the serious intent of the work.
This is a huge piece demanding a full cathedral or concert-hall
organ, and while the challenge to the listener may be noted
I think a word for the organist has to be put in as well - I’m
sure any performer of this piece could be wrung out and left
to recover for at least a week after such a tremendous effort.
The music moves and develops slowly in the first of four movements,
which is a Fantasia giving the impression of improvisatory
thematic freedom. This moves directly into Fugue I,
the first of two and a double fugue of magnificent inventiveness.
Contrapuntal clarity and intellectual rigour give way to an
Adagio which forms the central axis of the work, rising
as it does to a climax halfway through its 16 minute span, and
even more overwhelmingly toward the conclusion of the movement.
Where to go from here? I hear you ask. Fugue II is another
double fugue, but with contrasting rhythmic quirks which lead
the ear into refreshingly intriguing regions. This ultimately
combines with the themes of Fugue I to make a quadruple
fugue, so I think a visit to the library to have a look at the
score is in order for us composers. The Toccata nature
of the material as it develops allows material from the other
movements to become combined with all this counterpoint, but
it might take a couple of listening sessions to tune your memory
in to identify some of these. This is music which has a weight
and span which takes a good deal of concentration to appreciate
fully, but a little effort reaps its rewards, and Aho rewards
us with a final coda of repose and supplication.
This is an excellent performance and recording, which places
us at a realistic distance from the instrument and allowing
for plenty of acoustic space while keeping enough detail to
be able to follow most of the musical arguments. It must be
a challenge for the engineers to strike this balance, but the
organ sound - a new instrument from 2008 - is warmly expressive
and rich, the SACD spread enhancing its range and colours as
well as placing us in an ideal hot-seat.
Fans of Kalevi Aho will want to explore this release but I have
to admit, it is something of a tough cookie if you are not so
much a fan of the organ. Aho’s musical language is full
of subtlety and interest and there are some magical moments,
but in this case there is also a feeling of uncompromising expressionism
and rising to the technical demands of creating large-scale
work for a single instrument. In other words, this is less likely
to be something you will bring out on a regular basis, but it
most certainly is a handsome addition to the Aho catalogue.