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Aho: Symphony No. 12 - Storgårds

Aho: Symphony No. 12 - Storgårds

BIS  BIS-SACD-1676

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Kalevi Aho: Symphony No. 12 "Luosto"

Taina Piira (soprano)
Aki Alamikkotervo (tenor)
Hannu Lehtonen (saxophone)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Lapland Chamber Orchestra
John Storgårds (conductor)


Continuing a commitment which began in 1989, BIS has released a number of discs dedicated to the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. These include programmes with chamber music, but the majority involve large orchestra, performing large orchestral works. One genre favoured by Aho is that of the concerto, and the recently released recording of his Clarinet Concerto made a great impact on reviewers around the world, who described it as ‘intensely lyrical, thematically memorable, and beautifully scored’ (Classics Today.com), ‘a deeply moving master-piece’ (Fono Forum), and ‘a chef-d'œuvre of our time!’ (Classica-Répertoire). This prolific composer is also one of today’s great symphonic writers: his current work list includes no less than fourteen symphonies, and nine of these have been released on BIS, to great acclaim – upon its release in 1999, No.7 was for instance greeted as ‘one of our century's great orchestral scores’ by the reviewer in American Record Guide.

But even within such an extraordinary body of works, Kalevi Aho’s Symphony No.12, ‘Luosto’, holds a very special place. Written for a performance on the slopes of Mount Luosto in Finnish Lapland, it makes use of two orchestras, two vocal soloists and a number of brass players and percussionists placed at various distances from each other and the conductor, surrounding the audience.

The primary inspiration for this four-movement work came from the natural surroundings and traditions of Lapland, and parts of it were actually composed during a bitterly cold spell in the solitude of a cottage at the foot of Orresokka, the mountain next to Luosto. The three-dimensional qualities written into the score makes it the perfect subject for a Surround Sound recording, and during the recording sessions in the acclaimed acoustics of the Lahti Sibelius Hall, great pains were taken to recreate the set-up of the first performance.

This took place in 2003, in front of – or rather around – an audience of over 2000 people, and became the starting point of ‘LuostoClassic’, an annual summer music festival which in 2008 features another performance of Aho’s symphony. Among the performers on the present recording, the vocal soloists, the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland and the conductor John Storgårds all took part in the première of the work.

The uniqueness of the work, in terms of both sonic qualities and conception, would render any additional work meaningless in the context of a single disc, which is why it is published on its own despite the playing time of just under 50 minutes.

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PCM recording

Recorded in March 2007 at the Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland

Recording producer: Ingo Petry

Sound engineers: Jens Braun, Andreas Ruge

Digital editing: Matthias Spitzbarth

Recording equipment: Neumann microphones; Stagetec Truematch microphone preamplifier and high resolution A/D converter; MADI optical cabling; Yamaha 02R96 digital mixer; Sequoia Workstation; Pyramix DSD Workstation; B&W Nautilus 802 loudspeakers; STAX headphones

Surround mix: Jens Braun, Ingo Petry

SACD authoring: Bastiaan Kuijt
Reviews (1)
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Review by John Miller - June 21, 2008

In his excellent booklet notes, Kalevi Aho tells how he accepted what amounted to a challenge to produce a large outdoor piece for performance in a natural amphitheatre on the mountainside at Luosto in Arctic Finland. In his preparatory visits, he was fascinated with the site's natural acoustics and evolved the plan to have a large and a small orchestra opposing, with other small groups of instrumentalists on the hillsides around and above the central audience. This hugely ambitious piece has now several times been been performed in concert halls, and BIS provide a plan of the layout used for this recording in the Sibelius Hall, Lahti. The main body of the Lahti Symphony orchestra is on the front stage, the Lapland Chamber Orchestra on the rear part of the hall's annular balcony with six other small groups, mainly percussion, spaced along the sides of the balcony. The tenor, Aki Alamikkotervo, is placed with a saxophone player at centre front, soprano soloist (Taina Piira), being at centre rear, she also being paired with a saxophone soloist.

Aho requires a battery of percussion instruments (ideal for localisation in a natural acoustic), and apart from the familiar ones there are:

Spring Drum - a simple tube shaped drum is angled at one end with a wire spring dangling from a synthetic head membrane. Makes a variety of special effects; rolled and shaken to create rumbling thunder, strike on the spring to get a thunder clap - pitch variable by moving the hand over the opening.

Rain Sticks - long, hollow tubes filled with beads or beans; has small pins arranged helically on its inside surface. When the stick is upended, the beads fall to the other end of the tube, making a sound reminiscent of a rainstorm as they bounce off the pins.

Ocean drum - versatile double-headed frame drums with ball bearing infills, giving soothing sounds of waves rolling on to the shore, breathing sounds or stormy crashing effects.

'Shamans', the symphony's first movement, vividly conjures forth the shamanic cults which still live in some of the nomadic peoples of the great Boreal forest. It begins to stunning effect with complex drumming patterns from bass drums around the auditorium, a mighty sound and not placed too close, as often with wrap-around productions. Distant and dissonant trumpet calls, which recur through the work as a leitmotive, herald a shimmering orchestral crescendo which portrays the majesty of Nature's forces. Aho then embarks on an apocalyptic dance rivalling the savagery of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. As this subsides, there is an amazingly rich surrounding buzzing noise produced by the brass, like a forest full of angry bees. The movement ends with more muted trumpet calls and soft hypnotic drumming, a truly magical sound captured with great skill by the engineering team.

The second movement portrays 'Winter darkness and Midsummer'. A sinister, coiling contra-bassoon solo rumbles in the dead of winter, there are very soft swelling drum rolls and shivering strings depicting the awful pressure of the Arctic cold, and gleams of snow reflected by cymbal and triangle touches. A crepuscular tuba ushers in a coldly glittering climax (perhaps the Aurora Borealis?), and the sound quickens all around the listener with the burgeoning of Spring. Midsummer is a time which is still celebrated hedonistically by Scandinavians, and Aho greets it with roulades of woodwind imitations of bird song, which subside into an amazingly realistic rain shower from the rain sticks all around - I actually looked out of the window to see if it was raining!

The third movement, 'Song in the Fells', deals with human relationships to the environment. Here the soloists enter to duet with one another and their saxophone soloists across the auditorium in a wordless and sometimes erotic vocalise. This is the still centre of the symphony, bird-song impressions from the orchestras underpinned with fundamental breathing sounds from softly swelling bass and ocean drum rolls from all around us as the Earth listens spellbound. The reverie is finally interrupted by the signal muted trumpet calls from the distance, and the drums reply rhythmically. Both soloists acquit themselves very well in this difficult expressive style with no texts for guiding their expressive responses, which must in many ways be found 'on the wing'. I found that an unexpected effect of the entry of the saxophones immediately dragged me into the present, so wedded are we to their characteristic use in Jazz.

All good outdoor music must end with a storm, and the 'Luosto' Symphony is no exception. 'Storm in the Fells' begins softly with deep drum rolls in the rear speakers, wind machine and rain sticks. It builds into a tempest of awesome proportions. The soloists enter again to voice the effect of the storm on humankind, and are given an often cruel tessitura to express their fear. Soon the turbulence passes, and horns greet the returning sunshine, with bells, singers and birdsong joining to briefly give thanks, and the symphony ends with a long diminuendo of instrumental breathing noises.

Aho's symphony works very well because it is not merely a sonic spectacular, but a deeply felt musical event, coming from a Finland's long tradition of coalescing Nature and Art. While the influence of his teacher, Rautavaara, is manifest, he is his own man, although this work prompted me to recall the epic scale of Jon Leifs' Edda, the impressionism of Delius, the mysticism of Holst and even touches of Vaughan Williams in this music.

Conductor John Storgårds does a magnificent job in coordinating this massive score with performers not just on stage but all around him; it must be even more difficult to manage in the open air of Luosto. Recording Producer Ingo Petry and the engineering team have accomplished a significant coup with this concert-scale recording, which is simply the most thrilling and musically significant classical full surround multichannel recording to have come my way so far. The stereo layer is impressive, but this work was conceived for surround performance, and much of its spell-binding impact is lost without the 5 speakers. Stretches of softly-played orchestral textures around one's listening room are just as impressive sonically as are the great crescendos. Simply an unmissable sonic and musical experience.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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