Kalevi Aho: symphony No. 2

This piece has been revisited, and an updated article has been written. Please read it here.  I’ll keep the original article (below) for posterity, but I would suggest reading the new article instead.

performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä

…and now for something completely different. I’ve been trying to get through all the works from the composers that I currently have, and that means I’ve been making the rounds with more familiar composers. Even though I haven’t posted things from Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Beethoven, or some of the other typical symphonies, it’s only because I’ve already listened to them and want to give other works a chance and write based on first impressions. I’ll get back to those later, but I am already familiar with them to some degree or other. So I pulled out one of my long lists of composers to check out, and just picked this dude.

I couldn’t find his symphony no. 1 on YouTube. If I can acquire a recording, I will listen to it later, but was able to get a link for his second.

It is in one movement, and the publishing date is listed as 1970/1995. There’s no info on Wikipedia about it, so I didn’t read much about it. BIS is a record label that Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony have recorded many of Aho’s works with, and there was some information there. He apparently had decided to rework the middle section, but didn’t get around to it for 25 years. He was 21 years old when he wrote the original version. It says:

“The result is a compact, tightly-structured piece – it’s a triple fugue- which the composer candidly admits was intended as an antidote to some of the more ‘difficult’ music of the 1960s.”

There is certainly some obvious contrapuntal action in this piece, one section in particular that I noticed and liked.

The piece begins with very intense low strings (which I originally thought were cellos, but may be basses, or basses come in later). This intensity continues to build, and stays at a tense, near-frightening energy for the first third of the piece, before calming down. There’s a very nice fugue passage in double reeds (I think there’s even an English horn in there too, maybe). A few minutes later, the sound changes entirely. I’m not sure if it was the quality of the YouTube video, or the recording, or my headphones, but it sounded like someone blowing a dog whistle and dragging their fingernails across a chalkboard. Piccolos and flutes and a celesta or some kind of bells, but it marks a huge change in the sonic landscape of the piece.

Another noticeable change in mood comes a few minutes later when a snare drum joins in. It suddenly feels serious, and stormy strings play behind a marchy feel. This continues to build up to enormous chaos, but there is a glimpse of togetherness and some sense of relief (even though the piece is at a scary energy) when everyone comes together in a few bars of heavy unison before it falls back into chaos. There is a noticeably tragic/ dramatic brass line accompanied by screaming violins followed by a bass clarinet (?) solo that fades into quiet drum beats, then silence.

The original feel from the beginning reappears, more peaceful, but now familiar, with only echoes of the previous dialogues. Offstage (or very muted) trumpets echo the melody, and in the end the entire piece fades away with a solo flute.

From the beginning, it felt kind of like the music I had heard from Rautavaara, somewhat ethereal and with a very thick mood. As it turns out, Aho studied with him at the Sibelius academy. He has been composer in residence for the Lahti symphony since 1992, so I imagine their performances would be as close to the composer’s intentions as possible. His similarities to Rautavaara may only be in his early works, as his later stuff has been more likened to Mahler and Schnittke. He has also been compared to Shostakovich. His compositional style has apparently been more “modernist” and “post-modernist” while his earlier works were apparently very neoclassical, with lots of counterpoint and the like. I would be interested to get more familiar with his works and compare the styles from his different periods. There is a definitive storyline in this piece. I am eager to hear his other works.


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