Aho Symphony no. 1

performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä

(This work is so unfortunately not available for convenient sharing on YouTube, but I strongly suggest, if you like Shostakovich or any good, bleak 20th century symphony, to go purchase this recording right away. It’s a masterful first symphony for such a young composer.)

(cover image by Andreea Chidu)

Kalevi Ensio Aho was born on March 9, 1949 in Forssa, in southern Finland. (We’ve discussed Aho’s work before, but very poorly. In fact, his second symphony, which we’ll revisit later this week, was the 13th post on this blog, back when I had no idea what I was writing and was still using Tumblr. We never did a quick bio of Aho, so here one is.)

Aho had his first violin lesson at the age of 10, and his first compositions also date from this time. He studied at the Sibelius Academy with Rautavaara, and spent a year in Berlin studying with Boris Blacher.  He has been a prolific composer, and is still putting out new works. To date, he has composed 17 symphonies (and three chamber symphonies), two violin concertos, two cello concertos, as well as concertos for bassoon, clarinet, oboe, double bass, contrabassoon, viola, oboe, trombone, trumpet, horn, timpani, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, accordion, tuba, theremin, as well as for two cellos, two bassoons, saxophone quartet, and more. He’s also composed an enormous body of chamber and solo works, including three string quartets, various quintets, sonatas for accordion(s), and on and on.

Thankfully we have, from Chandos, the composer’s own notes about the origins of this work in the booklet for the release, available here. Aho begins discussing the history of the work by telling us about a fantasy for violin and piano, based on the poem Viulu (The Violin) by Uuno Kailas, about “a somewhat simple, foolish man who squats in the corner of his room all day long, “fiddling” on a blade of grass with a twig and is happy.” It was apparently never finished.

Aho moved on from that work. He was at this time studying with Rautavaara, and began working on a string quartet. He showed it to his teacher, who remarked that it was orchestral in nature, and to make a long story short, the first symphony was the result of these two earlier compositional efforts.

The work is in four movements, and is bookended by fugues, with two central, fascinating and bleak movements that call Shostakovich and Mahler to mind. Really, in Aho’s use of traditional forms like fugue, the resultant textures, and overall gloom, the whole thing reminds one of Shostakovich

The first movement, apparently the result of the string quartet effort, is a fugue. Of this choice, Aho says:

This form gives the movement the psychological expressiveness which I had sought.

From the beginning of this movement, we hear, as if through a fog, content that will stick with us for the duration of the symphony. It’s interesting that Aho himself uses the words “psychological expressiveness” to describe the choice of a fugue rather than a typical sonata-form movement. Why?

Well, for one, counterpoint and fugue and all that can be seen as very pedantic, beautiful, sure, but maybe not emotionally expressive. In listening to this piece, though, we hear the psychological nature of it in a kind of haunting depth, and it’s very effective. In this dark, introspective way, it may remind one also of Sibelius’s fourth ‘psychological’ symphony we discussed a few weeks back.

That mist that opens the work doesn’t really ever clear; rather, it thickens to become a near stifling, choking aberrant atmosphere. Some have criticized this movement (and the symphony as a whole) as not going anywhere, but this perceived repetitiveness is a kind of uncomfortable persistence that I find very powerful. The movement reaches a cataclysmic, nightmarish height before calming back down and ending quietly. A remarkable first movement.

The outer movements are of roughly equal length, at eight or nine minutes, with the inner movements both being around five and a half minutes. The second movement, marked Allegretto, takes the easily identifiable theme from the infinitely bleak first movement and it becomes the focus yet again. The composer says that “the opening fugue is transformed into a tragicomical, limping waltz melody.” You might not have thought of it in the first movement as being ‘catchy’ but I would say it’s nearly frustratingly memorable in the second movement. Aho also says that “the psychological dead-end feeling of the opening becomes more intense… without the possibility of escape… until it withers away.”

Could you imagine anything more desolate-sounding than that description? It’s exactly this hopelessness and near irreverent irony or sarcasm that bring Shostakovich to mind, and in some ways, also Mahler, in something like the Ländler of his ninth. Again, this movement reaches a mighty climax, with astounding, masterful use of the entire orchestra, but also cools off as if nothing happened. There are some grating, unsettling, faux-lyrical textures here, in the same acrid way that Shostakovich might make use of them.

The third movement is not a slow movement, though. It’s marked presto, and the composer says:

[the] third movement moves ever farther away from reality into a sort of surrogate baroque world, one which rips itself apart like a nightmare.

Our violin is still prevalent as a leader here, although now in a kind of perpetuum mobile of haunting sounds and expressions, harking back a bit to the misty, unsure opening of the symphony, except here with much more drive, barreling forward toward a destination that has still not yet become clear. The brief coda which follows the roaring climax revisits the waltz-like theme of the previous movement, again dying away.

The finale is also a fugue. Aho says “its theme is the theme of the first movement in reverse… An attempt is made to find a genuine way out of the situation.” As a result, even before we’ve finished listening to the movement, there’s a very inward, interconnectedness to the symphony. At the beginning, we hear relation to the previous movements, and while there’s certainly nothing cheerful about this movement, it is still remarkably, impressively beautiful, and offers at least a glimmer of hope.

For the first time, we hear glimpses of something lighter, like the Sibelius of his second symphony, of sunlight, although still shining over a mostly empty landscape. It’s as much a testament to the Lahti Symphony’s playing and the quality of the recording as it is to Aho’s masterful handling of the voices and textures in the symphony, but the details are crystal clear. It’s a florid, near violent, but heart-crushingly beautiful, very impressive close to the work. By the time this very dark, unrelenting piece is over, we finally have, perhaps, some ambiguous sense of hope, or at least a resolution.

You might not care for how heavy handed Aho is with his bleakness and pessimism, but I find it a very moving, well-crafted work, especially for a twenty-year old composer. It’s a very introspective symphony, not for the composer but for itself. It’s turned inward, with the bookending of the two fugues, like mirrors of each other, as well as the bleak central movements that also share material. There’s a shut-in sense to it, one of ‘trying to escape’ that the composer referenced. It is at times crazed, maniacal, unsettling, but it conveys these perhaps uncomfortable emotions extremely effectively.

I’m impressed.

But that’s not all we’ll be seeing of Aho. For whatever reason, I wrote about his second symphony more than four years ago, and obviously didn’t do it justice, so we’ll be revisiting that later in the week. Do stay tuned for that and more outstanding Finnish music as we draw this year to a close. Thanks so much for reading.


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