Notes and Editorial Reviews
Fine writing and solid musicianship; a feast for Aho fans.
Clarinet Quintet. Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano. Sonata for Two Accordions
Osmo Vänskä (cl); Sarah Kwak (vn); Gina DiBello (vn); Thomas Turner (va); Anthony Ross (vc); Susan Billmeyer (pn); Veli Kujala (acc); Susanne Kujala (acc)
BIS CD-1886 (75:10)
The clarinet has been well served by
Finnish composers in recent years. Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, and Sebastian Fagerlund have all written substantial works for the instrument, each exploring different aspects of its technical and expressive potential. Kalevi Aho also follows his own unique path, although he remains more conservative than his three compatriots. But all fall under the long shadow of Sibelius, with expansive vistas, long phrases, and gradually evolving ideas dictating the pace and structure of their music.
Aho’s Clarinet Quintet is a substantial work in five movements, although
connections between them transform the structure into two long paragraphs. This is music on a grand scale, and every new idea is carefully prepared and cautiously introduced. We typically hear swirling, legato phrases from the clarinet, supported by intricate but resolutely diatonic textures in the strings. The clarinet occasionally gives a few growls or flutters, but that’s the limit of the extended performing techniques. The music always has a strong linear focus, but the Nordic chill in Aho’s aesthetic means that these lines always fall short of becoming distinctive melodies.
The Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano inhabits a similar sound world, but sets up a very different relationship within its ensemble. The work was written for a viola competition, forcing both the composer and the listener to challenge the assumption that the clarinet should predominate. Aho squares this circle by giving the three players almost equal prominence, although with a very slight emphasis on the viola. In order to make these subtle interactions perceptible, Aho lightens his textures yet further, and only just reaches the bare minimum of excitement and interest required to support the work’s 13-minute duration.
The identity of the clarinettist will come as a surprise to many. Osmo Vänskä, it turns out, took an unusual path to the conductor’s podium via the principal clarinet chair. His most notable position as a player was as principal clarinet with the Helsinki Philharmonic in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Now, of course, he is chief conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, and the group he has assembled for these chamber works is made up of the orchestra’s section principals. They give technically assured performances, subtly phrased and always nuanced in texture. Above all, these readings work because the players are able to create the ideal atmosphere for the music, spacious and open but never unduly relaxed. The high-quality audio from BIS helps, especially in the many entries where the clarinet enters
, an effect that falls flat if the engineering can’t give the player the required sense of spatial focus.
The Sonata for Two Accordions is another substantial piece, which Aho himself compares in scale to the longer piano works of Liszt. It grew out of a virtuoso sonata for one accordion, although there is clearly sufficient material and inspiration here to keep at least two players busy. As with the clarinet, Aho avoids extended playing techniques on the accordion, so there is none of the heavy breathing from the bellows or chromatic cluster glissandos that characterize Gubaidulina’s writing for the instrument. Instead, the music is based on Baroque contrapuntal forms, prelude, passacaglia, and fugue. Aho demonstrates that accordion duet is the ideal vehicle for intricate polyphony. The voices come through the texture with the utmost clarity, and although the music poses exceptional technical challenges to the players, it always feels idiomatically suited to their instruments. The sonata is a curious choice to complete this program, but it turns out to be the most adventurous and satisfying work on the disc.
FANFARE: Gavin Dixon
The Aho-BIS partnership continues to blossom; from its early flowering with the First Symphony in 1989 it’s proved remarkably hardy, yielding a number of symphonies - 15 at the last count - concertos, vocal and chamber works. I’ve reviewed all the recordings for MusicWeb, the bulk of them in my Aho survey of September 2008; the most recent release - the three Chamber Symphonies - was reviewed for Brian Wilson’s Download Roundup. Happily it doesn’t end there, for BIS supremo Robert von Bahr has promised us part one of Aho’s complete organ music (BIS-SACD-1946) and an Oboe Concerto.
What’s most intriguing about this review disc is that it features Osmo Vänskä not as a conductor but as a soloist. He was a guiding light in this Aho series until he decamped to Minnesota in 2003, but now he’s found space in his busy schedule to show off his skills as a clarinettist in this quintet and trio. Aho’s certainly familiar with the former, having written a number of pieces for five players, and from the start of this clarinet-led newcomer it’s clear he hasn’t lost his talent to surprise. Speaking of the unexpected, Vänskä the soloist - now eloquent, now earthy - is a real delight.
The first movement of the quintet encapsulates much of what makes Aho’s music so very listenable. True, the piece has its sinewy side, but there’s an underlying lyricism and narrative strength that can’t fail to impress. All his players are given a chance to shine: extremes of register tempered with moments of striking inwardness. That said, the piece wears its virtuosity lightly; the second movement is especially challenging in its range and degrees of animation and the third is dominated by some of the most wistful - and seamless - clarinet sounds I’ve heard in ages.
Not to be outdone, the other members of the group play with considerable trenchancy when required; they’re also very much at ease in the more withdrawn passages that dot this composer’s
œuvre. Their playing is captured in sound of clarity and closeness. Some may find the balance a little
too forward, but the upside is that every detail of this score is laid bare in a way that’s not at all fatiguing. Indeed, the vigorously motile fourth movement, with its slashing, Herrmannesque strings, is all the more gripping for being so forceful. In the fifth there’s music of rare beauty and equivocation - a trembling, evanescent air - that’s something of an Aho trademark.
A fine, artfully structured piece - it never overreaches or overruns - the quintet gives way to an even more economical and alluring trio. Cast in a single movement it’s dense and angular, yet still remarkably lyrical. This apparent sleight of hand is another of the composer’s specialities. The hard outer carapace conceals a melodious and - at times - magisterial core. Susan Billmeyer’s piano is very well recorded, adding warmth and dramatic ballast to the proceedings; Thomas Turner’s viola sound is equally well caught.
The accordion sonata, recorded in Finland, sounds rather less forensic than the other two pieces; indeed, the distinctive squeezebox timbres emerge with pleasing tactility and strength, from the bass drone and burble to the instruments’ bright upper reaches. The splashy dissonances certainly caught me on the hop, but as always Aho tempers tough formality - the first movement is a prelude and passacaglia - with moments of soft and sudden quietude. That said, the second movement - a prelude and fugue - majors in arresting
glissandi, while the complex fugal section is surprisingly light and honeyed in character.
This is another varied and stimulating collection that is very well played and recorded. As for the composer’s liner-notes - as lucid as ever - they strike a good balance between the genesis of these pieces and their musical content. Of the three works here the quintet will probably have the broadest appeal. The sonata - with its remarkably subtle control of dynamics and articulation - is more approachable after several hearings.
Fine writing and solid musicianship; a feast for Aho fans.
-- Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Quintet for Clarinet and Strings by Kalevi Aho
Sarah Kwak (Violin),
Osmo Vänskä (Clarinet),
Thomas Turner (Viola),
Gina Dibello (Violin),
Anthony Ross (Cello)
Period: 20th Century
Sonata for 2 Accordions by Kalevi Aho
Veli Kujala (Accordion),
Susanne Kujala (Accordion)
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