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Orchestral Music Media Review

Kalevi Aho: Concertos

February 25, 2008 - Raleigh, NC:

Kalevi Aho: Concertos. Øystein Baadsvik, tuba; Norrköping Symphony, Mats Rondin, conductor; & Lewis Lipnick, contrabassoon; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton, conductor. BIS Records, BIS-CD-1754, © 2007, 63:42, $20.98.

When we think of solo instruments, violin, piano, flute, and oboe come to mind. But there are certain musical effects and characters that can't be expressed with these voices, and today, some of the most intriguing solo pieces are composed for low brass, percussion, or low winds. Kalevi Aho: Concertos features two of Finnish composer Kalevi Aho's recent works for underutilized solo instruments. Øystein Baadsvik performs 2001's Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra with Sweden's Norrköping Symphony under conductor Mats Rondin. Andrew Litton conducts contrabassoonist Lewis Lipnick and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra for 2005's Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra.

Aho has described the nature of his music as "abstract plot." While not explicitly programmatic, his concerti for tuba and contrabassoon both set the solo voice over a cinematic orchestral backdrop. But the solo voices in each piece seem to come from very different vantages: the tuba alternates between bright, warlike fanfares and pensive lyrical melodies. In the contrabassoon concerto, however, the star voice is a creature at home in a darker, more violent world colored by murky swaths of low brass and cataclysmic percussion. Paired together, these pieces highlight Aho's semi-narrative style and ability to characterize the sounds of the orchestra, whether the central voice is one of good or evil.

Baadsvik is known for his quirky, extroverted persona, which seems to lend his world-class playing a larger-than-life stylistic verve. In this performance he deftly brings to life Aho's fast-moving changes in mood, reacting to oppositional surges in the high strings or leaping from lyrical tones to harshly punctuated ascending statements, like a soldier drawing his foil at the first sign of conflict. It's difficult not to think of Baadsvik's solo voice as an epic hero navigating a Mediterranean's worth of perilous dangers and monstrous creatures. His performance of a brilliant fanfare that is the emotional crux of the second movement sounds hard-won, almost violent. The ensuing cadenza begins with dazed-sounding, descending four-note loops that build to a frantic crest before falling back against a brittle, dissonant hum of the high strings that for a few moments takes the upper hand. Baadsvik's adventurous style is also well suited to the multiphonics and fluttertongue effects that show up in the tuba line.

If the featured voice in Aho's tuba concerto comes to sound like a valorous fighter, the star of his contrabassoon concerto is the Grendel on the other side of the sword. Lewis Lipnick's contrabassoon growls, roars, and wails over a score that's even more mythic and aggressive than the mercurial tuba concerto. Unfortunately, the solo voice is enveloped by clashing peals of low brass and shuddering percussion during the many fortissimo passages. But during eye-of-the storm solo statements, Lipnick infuses a woody, baying tone with a fluid subtlety. Dark, aggressive exposed sections are some of the most dramatic on the entire disc; Lipnick's flexibility and tone quality in the sometimes muddy depths of the contrabassoon's range renders this monster an expressive creature, not a feral personification of evil. This effect speaks well of both Lipnick's talent and Aho's compositional skill: it's one thing to exploit extremes of range or tone, but to make an underexposed voice into a fully formed character is a true achievement.