Revisit: Aho Symphony no. 2

performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä

(no YouTube video here either, but I also strongly suggest getting a recording of this work and of Aho’s first. Maybe start with the first, and see what you think. I love these pieces. I’ll say they’re some of the most memorable discoveries of the year. The young Aho’s talent is astounding.)

(cover image by Teddy Kelley)

What is a symphony? This is a question I’ve answered many times to others’ inquiries, or my own posing of the question, often before dragging them to some performance or other.

The symphony is to symphonic music what the novel is to fiction, in a way, generally the largest, most expansive form in the medium. The greatest difference is that the novel, aside from things like character development, conflict/resolution, etc., doesn’t have a specific, defined form, per se. And yet we would generally say that the symphony does. Of course, it has changed over time, at certain points in history with certain composers’ pens, but that discussion is for another time.

Parallels can be drawn to the novel, though; the symphony also has themes, development, sections, and its own conflict and resolution, but over the past few years of listening, I’ve been discovering some very unique symphonies with very novel forms, like Sibelius’s seventh, the first single-movement symphony, or those from Simpson, Pettersson, and others, who use entirely different layouts to present their symphonic arguments. In the coming year, we will see yet more.

This article is a revisit of a piece I wrote about now more than four years ago, in fact, the 13th piece in the blog’s history, for some reason, but needless to say, I had nothing insightful to offer at the time, and even now will rely on the composer’s own words for this article. Looking at this single-movement symphony now, it makes specific statements about music history and tradition, the musical climate, etc., that I personally, unfamiliar with the symphonic tradition as I was, could never have appreciated at the time.

It is something of a continuation of the idea in Aho’s first symphony from earlier this week. While that is indeed a four-movement work, we will see how this work takes some of the ideas present there to their farthest reaches. That first was an inward-facing, interconnected work, and we see that to an even greater degree here.

Kalevi Aho’s second symphony dates the composer’s time at the Sibelius academy, just a year after his first. We thankfully have the Chandos booklet for this release as well, containing much information about the work from the composer himself. In it, he describes the work as “a broad triple fugue in one movement, to which a free, passacaglia-like coda has been added.” You might remember from just a few days ago that Aho’s first symphony began and ended with fugues that shared related material. This triple fugue seems like a synthesis of that first symphony which began and ended with a fugue.

It had its first performance on April 17, 1973, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Kari Tikka. 22 years later, I am assuming without any performances during that time, it was revised for a performance by the Tampere Philharmonic. They had apparently put it on the program and Aho finally undertook the task of making revisions to it. This new version was performed on September 15, 1995 by the Tampere Philharmonic under Tuomas Ollila-Hannikainen.

Of the revision, the composer says that he “composed the middle section of the scherzo completely anew… though still employing the original melodic material and without affecting the original form of the section.” So not much changed.

Speaking of his reasons for writing a single-movement triple fugue as a symphony, Aho says it was:

[a] reaction against developmental trends in the modern music of the 1960s. Tonality had broken down, melody had become a taboo subject, and musical form had become so fragmented that the formal logic of modern compositions was often very difficult to follow.

So we have one of the most complicated, strict, challenging, even pedantic, forms of music, the fugue, a triple fugue. Aho says that “I only composed the other themes when I knew what sort of demands were made by the musical dramaturgy,” only beginning with the composition of the first, and moving from there. This is clearly an important aspect for him. He says that:

Difference, in terms of opposition or contrast, reveals itself to be in essence unity.

You’ll have to go read the whole set of notes, because the composer speaks outstandingly eloquently about how the fugue form resolves this issue of “the problem of reconciling the form of modern music and the reception it was accorded.” He says that “Even an inexperienced listener will find it easy to follow the development of the fugue and the progress of the themes in the various parts,” with the result that the fugue’s development is “tight and logical.”

The work is about 22 minutes in length and comes in three broad sections.

The first main section, the one with which Aho began the composition of the piece, is “powerful and heavy.” We hear again a likeness to both Sibelius and Shostakovich, two composers whose approaches to the symphony were very different. Aho’s approach to the darkness and pain we hear in this opening section falls squarely between the two, and is thus familiar but refreshingly, excitingly unique. The contrapuntal texture lends a seriousness to the music, in much the manner of the first symphony. Rautavaara must have been an exquisite teacher, because I have been enormously impressed with Aho’s treatment of orchestral layers and voices, especially at such a young age.

This first section just continues to unfold, gaining strength as it goes, building to a frightening, almost literally unbearable intensity before finally cooling off into the second section, which by this point is much needed. Aho calls the second section “a sort of broad interlude.” Out of the echoes of this momentous first passage, about a third of the symphony, come delicate strings, which might have been there all along, which usher in this near-pastoral passage, with flutes, and horn calls and all the rest. The highly contrapuntal texture remains, and it is much lighter, and brisk, but still somewhat desolate. The textures are refreshingly transparent, with most of the voices of the orchestra getting a moment to shine, lending an almost baroque element to this central passage.

It’s also the shortest of the three main sections of this triple fugue, a few minutes shorter than the first, and ending on flute, where timpani announce the arrival of the third section. Again, considering the layout of the work and its structure, Aho says:

the compositional dramaturgy again demands very rapid and virtuoso music which also dissipates all the tension that has accumulated. The climax of the scherzo section is very big and dramatic, so the piece did not require any further fugal sections.

If you’ve listened to the first symphony and this much of the second, you’ll not be surprised at the expert handling of this wildly energetic, powerful, but still crystal clear scherzo section. The contrapuntal texture never stops, and yet there’s never a feeling that it’s become stodgy or too dense. On the contrary, it is possessive of an irresistible forward motion, of equal intensity to the beginning but in an entirely different way. It’s cinematic, almost triumphant at times, celebratory, but still unnerving in its ambiguity.

One of the most captivating passages in the entire symphony is how the scherzo unravels and the funereal passacaglia emerges to close out this magnificent achievement of a symphony. The entire work is absolutely brilliant.

While the whole thing, triple fugue and different sections and ‘free passacaglia’ as coda may sound pedantic and contrived, you can set all the qualifiers aside, because, as the composer said, the progression is unmistakable. We could say it falls into four sections, the fourth being the short coda, like a final slow movement. It is, however, all so very well connected, so integrated as one unified whole, that that doesn’t do the piece justice.

Despite Aho’s incredible gift for writing roaring, terrifying, soul-crushing music, he opts instead to finish the piece with the echoes of this compact and monumental work, like glowing embers in darkness. It sounds cliché, but it is absolutely a masterpiece.

Nothing more to be said.

Thank you so much for reading, and do stay tuned for the last week or so of our Finnish Symphony Series to round out the year.



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