|Review by larsmusik June 27, 2015 (4 of 4 found this review helpful)
|Prolific Finnish composer Kalevi Aho (b. 1949) is near the end of one of his most ambitious undertakings, that of writing a concerto for every instrument in the Romantic orchestra. With his recent concerto for theremin and orchestra, he has ventured into post-Romantic territory as well. A theremin is one of the very first wholly electronic musical instruments, invented by Russian physicist Lev Termen (a.k.a. Léon Theremin), who secured a U.S. patent for the device in 1928. A typical theremin consists of two electrically charged antennae, one placed horizontally, the other vertically, both linked to an amplifier. The player controls frequency and amplitude (pitch and loudness) by altering the position of her hands relative to the antennae; a player’s hands never actually touch the instrument. You will have heard a theremin in film scores—Rósza’s Spellbound, Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still—or in the title music for the long-running British TV series Midsomer Murders. Or, for that matter, in Brian Wilson’s Good Vibrations. Glissandi are easy on the theremin, whereas fast passages or detached articulations (staccato, marcato, etc.) are much more difficult to manage.
Aho was approached by one of today’s leading theremin performers, Carolina Weyck, and readily agreed to write her a concerto. Moreover he arranged a commission for the work via the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, who ultimately premiered the work with conductor John Storgårds. They present it and Aho’s Horn Concerto, both from 2011, on this recording.
When first hearing it, I was struck by the degree to which the relatively conservative Aho took pains to emphasize ties between traditional symphonic instruments and this electronic “newcomer” (which has been around now for nearly 90 years). The first sounds we hear are those of the upper strings, sliding and moaning very much in the manner of a theremin but also in the manner of, well, orchestral strings. And then, 45” into the first movement, the theremin enters, and you will probably mistake it for an orchestral instrument; I’m not saying which one, only that Aho cannily chooses a color and register not commonly associated with the theremin. Other instruments slowly take up the theme, again emphasizing their connectedness to the electronic intruder.
With a flurry of woodwind arpeggios, the concerto passes to its second movement, “Autumn Colours,” and we are in for further colors and comparisons. Aho titles the concerto Eight Seasons, and as with Vivaldi’s Four, we are treated to music unabashedly based on depictions of the natural world throughout the year. In Aho’s case it’s not Italy in four movements, though, it’s the Far North—Lapland—in eight, beginning with a warm late-summer “Harvest,” continuing through the winter months (of which there are many) and concluding with “Midnight Sun,” whose tonal center is the same as “Harvest,” implying that the cycle of seasons moves ever onward. The composer’s choice of timbres and textures include a few surprises, like the birdsong evoked in “Black Snow,” which reminded me a little of Rautavaara’s inclusion of recorded migrating flocks in Cantus Arcticus. Ms. Weyck’s multiple musical talents also come into play in ways that establish further affinities between the theremin and other “instruments.” Well worth hearing.
Aho’s horn concerto is more conventional. From the very first notes of this work—fanfare-like calls sounded offstage by the soloist—Aho invokes the long heritage of the horn, in the hunt and in military music especially. One can scarcely escape it, since the instrument’s technique, its very idiom, has been shaped so decisively by cultural function over the centuries. The horn concerto is played in one continuous movement lasting a little over 26 minutes. It nevertheless proceeds in several well-defined sections including a “Quasi cadenza” placed midway through the work. Overall this work offers a fuller portrait of Aho’s talent. There’s also a theatrical element: soloist Annu Salminen, for whom the work was written, begins offstage, gradually makes her way from left to right onstage, and finally disappears into the wings. Undoubtedly this visual progression helps communicate a musical narrative, but I found BIS’s excellent recording conveyed much the same sense of journey. The opening, with its distant horn cries and contrasting onstage deep bass drone, is indeed dramatic. Once the work gets fully underway, Aho brings the soloist into confrontation with the forces arrayed against her. A climactic, contrapuntally exciting tarantella helps bring the music to a boil before it returns to simmer and fade-out.
As with other BIS multichannel releases, this album was recorded in a 24/96 digital format and then converted to DSD for SACD mastering. The sound is nevertheless quite good, showing a particularly welcome soundstage depth and range of colors in the Horn Concerto. Included with the disc is a short video documentary in which Ms. Eyck shows how the theremin is played and explains her work with Aho.
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