Kalevi Aho Concertos – Contemporary Masterworks from Finland

Finnish composer Kalevi Aho is best known for his large-scale works. This release has two excellent examples: the Tympani Concerto, and the Piano Concerto No. 1.

The Turku Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned the Tympani Concerto for its timpanist, Ari-Pekka Mäenpää. Speaking as a percussionist, I think it’s a masterwork. Aho worked with Mäenpää to create a work that makes the tympani a truly melodic instrument.

Aho takes full advantage of pedal tuning, which let the player rapidly change notes. And there are plenty of glissandi, making the player change the note’s pitch on the fly. Aho also expands the setup to five drums (as opposed to the traditional four), which gives him even more resources to work with.

The timpani has some long, lyric passages that are quite beautiful. But Aho hasn’t forgotten its role in the orchestra. The finale is a rollicking rhythmic tour-de-force. Ari-Pekka Mäenpää is an exceptional performer. Other tympanists looking to perform this work will find it quite a challenge.

Aho’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is a heady mix of styles. I heard goodly portions of Alfred Schnittke and Sergei Prokofiev with a dash of Edgar Varése, all served up in a totally original style. Aho uses strongly tonal elements — such as diatonic scales, and simple triads — in a decidedly non-tonal fashion. The concerto has a sarcastic swagger to it I quite liked.

There are also some quiet and contemplative passages, too. The work has a satisfying emotional flow to it. Pianist Sonja Fräki knows Aho’s works intimately. Her doctoral dissertation was on Aho’s piano music, and she’s recorded them for BIS. This is an artist who truly understands the composer’s intentions, and her performance demonstrates that.

Heartily recommended — and not just to lovers of contemporary classical music.

Kalevi Aho: Tympani Concerto, Piano Concerto No. 1
Ari-Pekka Mäenpää, timpani; Sonja Fräki, piano;
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Erkki Lasonpalo (Timpani Concerto) Eva Ollikainen (Piano Concerto)
BIS 2306 SACD

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