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Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
Piano Works
Sonata (1980) [16:35]
Solo II (1985) [13:20]
Halla for violin and piano (1985) [8:15]
Sonatina (1993) [7:05]
Three Small Piano Piece (1971) [4:45]
Two Easy Piano Piece (1983) [2:05]
Nineteen Preludes (1965-8) excerpts [21:36]
Andreas Skouras (piano)
rec. Kammermusiksaal, Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, 2009
NEOS 10915 [74:22]

Kalevi Aho is a Finnish composer who comes between the older generation of Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016) and Aulis Sallinen (born 1935) and the younger one of Kaija Saariaho (born 1952), Magnus Lindberg, and Esa-Pekka Salonen (both born 1958). He has not had as much international exposure as them but is highly esteemed in his own country as is shown by his long list of works. He has written seventeen symphonies and twenty-eight concertos, including such unusual soloists as a tuba, a contrabassoon, a saxophone quartet and a theremin. He has been nobly served by the recording company BIS which has recorded most of his symphonies and plans to record the rest, if they can keep up, and many of his other works. You can read a recently updated introduction to his music here.

Aho has concentrated on music for larger forces and all the works in this piano recital are early, with the most recent dating from twenty-four years ago. We have two substantial works and some minor works and the disc is filled out with his only work for violin and piano.

The sonata is in three movements in a idiom which starts off near to expressionism. The opening is like Berg but the first movement has highly contrasted material, more pianistic than that might suggest and I fancy I hear Scriabin hovering somewhere in the background. The second movement features complex textures with polyrhythms (three against four), extremes of compass, leaping figures and trills. The third movement is twice the length of each of its two predecessors and begins slow and quiet, with a meditative quality. Piano sounds are plucked from the air and die away. There is a thunderous climax before the end. This is Aho’s single most important piano work.

Solo 2 is one in a series of works for different solo instruments. It is basically a bravura concert work with a declamatory opening which leads to a perpetuum mobile, very varied and dramatic. It is full of striking ideas which are not really integrated into a whole. Still, it is an impressive piece.

Halla, the work for violin and piano, has a declamatory opening with a suggestion of Brahms, followed a more flowing and lyrical passage, occasionally interrupted by forceful outbursts. Gradually serenity wins out with both instruments at the extremes of their ranges.

The Sonatina is in three short movements. The opening Toccata has an irregular rhythm with some strong and rapid passagework. In the Andante the right hand floats over a dark and sinister bass line. This is somewhat reminiscent of the quieter passages in Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, which indeed seems behind much of the texture of Aho’s piano writing. The final Prestissimo is another perpetuum mobile which becomes clangorous before the end. This is a successful work which I enjoyed.

Of the Three Small Piano Pieces, the first begins powerfully before subsiding into something more peaceful. The second is a chorale and the third a study in octaves and rhythms.

The first of the Two Easy Pieces for Children is a squib, the second, an Andante, a transcription by the composer from the first movement of his fourth symphony.

The set of Nineteen preludes was one of Aho’s first compositions. He later withdrew it but agreed to some of the pieces being recorded here. We are given eleven of them. Of these I was struck by No. 5, reminiscent of the Grail March in Parsifal, No. 10 a fast and exciting chase, the songlike No.11, the rather Bach-like contrapuntal study of No. 16 and No. 17, weighty in a Hindemithian sort of way. I would have liked to hear the whole set.

Andreas Skouras is an experienced solo and chamber music player and plays a good deal of twentieth century music as well as the standard repertoire. He also plays the harpsichord. He makes a skilled and committed advocate for Aho’s piano works, even though most of them are really just chips from his workshop. He is well recorded.

The sleevenotes, in three languages, are helpful. They describe this as a first recording of Aho’s piano music. That was true when this recording was made, in 2009, but it was only released in 2016; meanwhile, all the other works apart from Halla have appeared on a disc from Sonja Fräki on the indefatigable BIS label (review). Instead of Halla this offers all Nineteen Preludes, and so would appear the more logical choice except for those who particularly want Halla, of which this is indeed the first available version.

Stephen Barber

 

 




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