Aho: Symphony No 1; Hiljaisus: Violin Concerto / Gräsbeck, Vänskä, Lahti Symphony

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Given Sibelius’s reputation as one of the great symphonists of the last century, contemporary Finnish composers may be forgiven for feeling a little overshadowed. Fortunately for the young Aho, Rautavaara’s advice and support proved decisive in shaping this symphony, which began life as a string quartet. The work is in four movements, the mysterious opening and ascending brass figures of the Andante strongly reminiscent of Shostakovich. Indeed, this is confirmed by the noted music publisher Fennica Gehrman, in a short article on the Finnish Musical Information Centre website.

There is no obvious programme here, but in his refreshingly unpretentious liner-notes – a welcome feature of this entire cycle – Aho does speak of ‘nightmares’ and ‘psychological crises’. Even without these pointers the Andante has a certain bleakness – desolation, even – although there’s none of the trenchancy one associates with Shostakovich in similar mood. That said the grim little waltz in the Allegretto could so easily be attributed to DSCH, not to mention the quiet but insistent tread in the lower strings.

By contrast the Presto kicks off with an arresting moto perpetuo that drives this fugue like a musical dynamo. This movement has some of the most individual writing so far. That said the shade of Shostakovich hovers nearby, the laconic waltz tune and a splintered remnant of the opening theme bringing the symphony to an enigmatic close.

The other works on this disc – Hiljaisuus (Silence) and the Violin Concerto – date from the early 1980s. According to Aho, Hiljaisuus, a Finnish Radio commission that was to last no more than five minutes, was intended as an introduction to the recently completed Violin Concerto. It’s a strange swirl of a piece, a mix of unsettling glissandos and unearthly sonorities. Sample the short passage at 4:02 and you may be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to Ligeti.

The Violin Concerto has more momentum and contrast than Hiljaisuus, although it shares the latter’s concentrated, more dissonant idiom. It isn’t the most grateful start to a violin concerto, the solo part – sensitively played by Manfred Gräsbeck – rather less prominent than one might expect. That said it would be difficult to hear it above the orchestral eruptions that punctuate the first movement. At 8:30 the soloist is given some insistent phrases that rise above muted timps, culminating in an equally restrained close.

The repeated phrases at the start of the second movement – marked Leggiero – lead into music that fluctuates between light and shade. The soloist has some rhapsodic passages all to himself before we plunge into the spectral waltz of the finale. La Valse this isn’t, but the wild, somewhat demonic element is certainly present. Gräsbeck phrases these tunes like a Mahlerian Ländler – listen to the passage beginning at 3:37 – before he is crushed by a massive orchestral climax worthy of Bartók in Miraculous Mandarin mode.

Whatever hints there may be of other sound worlds Aho has fashioned something altogether individual here, combining a range of ear-pricking sonorities with music of considerable punch and power. Nothing quite prepares one for the gentle, introspective close to this concerto which, as I have discovered, is something of an Aho trademark.

Despite its obvious influences the symphony is remarkably assured for a student work. It’s economically scored, light on its feet and direct in its appeal, the chamber-like qualities much enhanced by the airy recording. The concerto is more roughly hewn; it’s a protracted tussle between soloist and orchestra, yet it has real presence and power. All credit to the Lahti Symphony Orchestra – just 40 years old when this recording was made – who play these scores with commitment and care. An excellent entrée to Aho’s distinctive sound world.

-- Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BIS-CD-396

  • UPC: 7318590003961

  • Label: BIS

  • Composer: Kalevi Aho

  • Conductor: Osmo Vänskä

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Lahti Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Manfred Gräsbeck


  1. Symphony no 1

    Composer: Kalevi Aho

    Ensemble: Lahti Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Osmo Vänskä

  2. Hiljaisuus

    Composer: Kalevi Aho

    Ensemble: Lahti Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Osmo Vänskä

  3. Concerto for Violin

    Composer: Kalevi Aho

    Ensemble: Lahti Symphony Orchestra

    Performer: Manfred Gräsbeck (Violin)

    Conductor: Osmo Vänskä