«Kalevi Aho: Piano Works»
Two Easy Piano Pieces,
Three Small Piano Pieces,
Andreas Skouras (Piano).
Kalevi Aho is a true giant amongst composers of our time, both in terms of craftsmanship and in his sonic and formal imagination. Although his works are not performed as much internationally as some of his colleagues, he is without doubt Finland’s most brilliant symphonic and operatic composer working today.
Aho was born on 9 March 1949 in Forsa, in southern Finland. He learnt the mandolin and violin at the age of nine, and also began composing at that age. During his youth he loved the great romantic symphonists, and during his school days he wrote several string quartets and sonatas for solo violin, as well as his first orchestral piece – all without any instruction, directly from what he imagined in his inner ear. After completing secondary school, he began studying mathematics, simultaneously studying composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki with Einojuhani Rautavaara – a versatile, colourful and technically skilled stylistic pluralist who can meanwhile be considered Finland’s most popular symphonist after Sibelius. Rautavaara’s non-dogmatic approach was ideal for Aho, who was to far exceed his teacher as far as stylistic pluralism is concerned. Already in 1969, the first year of his studies, he wrote his First Symphony, a most astounding, superbly worked-out large-scale composition permeated with youthful brilliance. This work immediately allowed him to achieve his breakthrough in his Finnish homeland.
Complete mastery of technique, especially of the full orchestra, and free flight of the imagination are hallmarks of his oeuvre, revealed from piece to piece in extremely different facets. As of this writing, Aho has completed sixteen symphonies which can be regarded as the creative core of his oeuvre. He is no less significant as an operatic composer, but so far none of his operas has been released on CD, which has had an inhibiting effect on their dissemination. Despite this, his operatic production is of eminent interest, for Aho is by nature a vivid music dramatist, highly gifted in the psychologically suggestive control and illumination of the acting characters and events, as well as in the depiction of the tragic and bizarre. In addition, Aho has a natural knack for subjects which are both timelessly current and complexly demanding, as shown in such works as The Life of Insects and When We Are All Drowned.
Above all this, alongside three impressive chamber symphonies, one must not overlook his virtuoso chamber music with the series of quintets for winds and strings in very different mixed instrumentations. One example is the Quintet for alto saxophone, bassoon, viola, cello and double bass of 1994, highly original in its sound and structure. As so often with Aho, it is about “elementary oppositions that determine our lives: harmony and destructiveness, joy and desperations, balance and imbalance, life and lifelessness.”
As a symphonic composer, Aho has gone beyond all the commonly imposed boundaries of the genre, especially in the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 written between 1975 and 1980. With his Fourth, Ninth and Tenth Symphonies, he has written works that are amongst the most substantial in this genre created in our time. “I have repeatedly composed catastrophes. But I have no catastrophic ideologies. The tensions are simply so incredible that something vehement must then happen, and this can cause the structure to break. This is a ‘breaking form’, resulting from its tension.”
The harpsichordist and pianist Andreas Skouras has now taken on the production of Kalevi Aho, presenting a brilliant first recording of this music for piano solo – as many-sided as it is unpredictable, crossing borders in pianism, realised in a sovereign manner in terms of content and form. Skouras has provided the following commentary on the individual compositions: “The piano works of Kalevi Aho are penetrated by his predominantly orchestral way of thinking. The polyrhythms, the juxtaposition of several layers containing different events and the resultant sonic image frequently correspond to that of a large orchestra.
The best example of this is the Sonata of 1980. In three movements, its sections clearly separated from each other but without interruption, it is Aho’s most weighty solo work for the piano. The core of the development is formed by the intervals of the major and minor third. The first movement, a kind of improvisation, juxtaposes contrasting elements against each other. Mysterious garlands alternate with rhythmically inconstant moments, cluster-like chords and free melodies. The second movement, a toccata, approaches the limit of what is technically playable on the piano. The stringent rhythms become increasingly dense due to the overlapping of voices, leading to a prestissimo coda, which _ after wild cluster outbursts and a scale that loses itself, proclaims the third movement (the actual heart of the work) with the signal of a third. Grand and solemn, like a lamento, on an orchestral scale and with luxurious wind chords on one page and string-like tremoli on another, this is a prime example of a piano sound as Liszt attempted to represent it in many of his works. Not only does the instrument become an orchestra, but it represents the apotheosis of sound and expression.
Solo II belongs to the group of works of the same title that runs like a thread through the composer’s creations for chamber combinations. In its conception, it clearly resembles the Sonata. The form is also tripartite here: Introduction/Improvisation – Fast – Coda; Slow. But in this case, the soloistic aspect is more firmly placed in the foreground; the piano remains the piano, in line with the great concert solos of the Romantic period. What is interesting is the fact that here, too, the third – major, minor, and placed in layers above each other – forms the point of departure of the work and remains the decisive interval for the musical language. The alternation and combination of the two intervals may convey the impression of bitonality, but Aho skilfully succeeds in sidestepping major-minor tonality by renouncing fifths and thus the completion of the chords in major or minor. He shows the intervals of the third as two sides of the same coin.
The Sonatina is a very successful example of lending more weight to a genre usually considered to be lightweight. The first movement is classical, a rhythmically striking toccata followed by a three-part song-like Andante interrupted by brief, chorale-like sections. The work concludes with a perpetuum mobile which takes up elements of the first two movements, combining them with each other and thus creating a convincing arc that holds the whole piece together.
Aho’s first published Piano Pieces of 1971 also bear witness to the attempt at transferring the orchestral idea onto the piano. The first piece, Maestoso, begins with powerful chords, then expanding in the second part over sustained pedal points and concluding as an illusion, as if it were a piece for three hands. The second piece, Tranquillo, is a calm chorale and the final piece, a calm Maestoso, is a study in octaves and complementary rhythms.
The Allegretto, a short commissioned composition, is a joke à la Shostakovich and an ideal encore piece. The Andante, on the other hand, is in fact an orchestral piece. It was adapted for the piano by the composer from the first movement of his own Fourth Symphony.
Amongst Aho’s earliest compositions are the 19 Preludes for Piano of 1965–68, later withdrawn by the self-critical composer. However, he fortunately agreed to a cross-section of the collection for this CD release. These pieces not only offer clear evidence of the early development of a highly gifted composer, but reveal a surprising depth. They are clear harbingers of the later Aho’s utterly original musical language. An occasional proximity to Brahms (Nos. 11 and 14) or Chopin (No. 10) does nothing to negate this impression. Their variety make them a fascinating panopticum of ideas and listening impressions.
Halla is the Finnish word for the surprising first frost in autumn or a late frost in spring. The great Finnish poet Eino Leino made use of this term in a poem. But Aho’s only piece for violin and piano should not be understood as programme music; the title served him as an inspiration. The introduction is weighty, with a sense of gravity (one is reminded of Solo II), and the following section is flowing and gentle. In it, Aho (himself a violinist) attains a certain balance in the combination of the instruments which form their ideas together and complement each other. All open contrasts are intentionally avoided.”
Christoph Schlüren / Andreas Skouras