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Aho: Organ Music 1 - Lehtola

Aho: Organ Music 1 - Lehtola

BIS  BIS-SACD-1946

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Kalevi Aho: Three Interludes for Organ, Symphony for Organ "Alles Vergänglich"

Jan Lehtola (organ)


Largely known and admired for his large orchestral scores – including fifteen symphonies to date – the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho has actually written in a wide variety of genres, including chamber music and opera. He did arrive at the organ via the orchestra, however: in 1993, when composing his Eighth Symphony, he decided to let the organ feature in it as a solo instrument. Although he integrated it into the orchestra, it was also provided with three interludes between the separate movements. Encouraged to recast these into a solo work for the instrument, Aho composed a brief introduction for each interlude, functioning as a short summary of what had appeared before it in the course of the symphony.

Behind the Three Interludes, and indeed the symphony, there lies a powerful experience of nature: a mid-summer journey on the Arctic Ocean, when everything, in the absence of night, was ‘bathed in an endless blue-tinged light’. Although composed 14 years later, the Symphony for Organ also owes its existence to the Eighth Symphony. After having played the organ part in a 2005 performance of that work, the Finnish organ virtuoso Jan Lehtola approached the composer urging him to write a big, multi-movement work for solo organ.

Although the organ symphony has been an established genre since composers such as Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne, Aho has patterned his own work on the orchestral symphony, continuing the tradition of symphonic development. All of the work’s musical material is related, and at the end of the finale a synthesis of it all is achieved, in what can best be described as a highly intricate – and virtuosic – ‘quadruple fugue’. The work’s subtitle, Alles Vergängliche (‘All that is perishable’), comes from the end of Goethe’s Faust, and alludes to the symphony’s Faustian character, reaching for the heavens, and also to its ending, as the music dies away into inaudibility.

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PCM recording

Recorded in October 2010 at the S:t Johannes kyrka, Malmö, Sweden, 24/96

Producer and sound engineer: Matthias Spitzbarth

Equipment: Neumann and Sennheiser microphones; RME Octamic D microphone preamplifier and high-resolution A/D converter; Sequoia Workstation; Pyramix DSD Workstation; B&W Nautilus 802 loudspeakers; STAX headphones

Post-production: Editing and mixing: Matthias Spitzbarth

Executive producer: Robert Suff
Reviews (1)
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Review by John Miller - September 14, 2012

Kalevi Aho (1949-) is regarded as one of the most inventive and productive of contemporary Finnish composers. Although mainly an orchestral composer, it is likely that he became interested in the King of Instruments during his early composition lessons with Einojuhari Rautavaara, whose affinity with the organ is well-known. To date, Aho has four major pieces for solo organ, and two pieces with organ and another instrument and Aho's distinctive sound-world takes on another dimension with this instrument, as shown here in a challenging album.

Jan Lehtola, one of the foremost technically gifted of Finnish organists, has worked with Aho for some time, and suggested that the composer should write an organ symphony, following the première of Aho's Eighth Symphony, which is for organ with orchestra. Lehtola chose the 1907/2008 Åkerman & Lund instrument, in the Sct Johannes Kyrke, Malmö. I have to say that this is not the most beautifully toned instrument I have ever heard, but its wide variety of dispositions, great power and its somewhat direct and acerbic timbres are an ideal foil for Aho's invention.

Aho admits in his refreshingly lucid and informative liner notes that his organ music contains thousands of notes. In fact, it approaches "extreme organ playing" with its virtuoso demands, particularly a staggeringly complex pedal part. So difficult are some of these pieces, an assistant organist is required (Magnus Berglöf) to play or be registrant (i.e. pull the stops).

The Three Interludes grew out of the Eighth Symphony, which has three scherzi, each followed by an Interlude, and the symphony's soloist, Hans-Ola Ericsson, suggested that Aho write three solo pieces for organ based on these interludes, and they were completed in 1993, with each one given a new introduction.

Based on material from the children's song "Hänchen klein ging allein (from the beginning of the Eighth Symphony), which describes how a child who runs away from his mother finally returns. The boy's progress appears to have been tempestuous as the First Interlude vividly illustrates. Beginning in a whimsical "Till Eulenspiel" sort of way, soon, stalking, grinding deep pedals incite slashing fusillades of ever-faster repeated massive chords. This demonstrates spectacularly the explosive action the Åkerman & Lund instrument can produce. The Second Interlude is more orchestral in colour, beginning in a shy play of rising and falling flute-toned scales, pulsing with crepuscular gurgling and bubbling until the pedals and heavy reeds blaze in like forbidding granite walls. The chordal elements work gradually into a brilliant C major chord and fade away.

Much slower and more contemplative is the Third Interlude, which Aho tells us was inspired by the most northern latitudes, where during Winter there is a special blue light (possibly a synesthesiast like Scriabin); he sees this as a chord of B minor. Slow chugging chords develop in the background, terrifying in weight and dissonance until time is made to stand still, and a 5 minute B minor chord is played by the assistant as gentle beams of splintered starlight cross the northern sky, both tranquil and magical.

"Alles Vergängliche" (All That Is Perishable) from the end of Goethe's Faust is about reaching for Heaven, as illustrated by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony. Aho uses this principle for an Organ Symphony, modelled not on the French Romantic ones for organ solo but in an orchestral style. It was suggested to him by Jan Lehtola in 2005, and has true symphonic development, with all the initial material related and finally synthesised at the end of the 51' work.

The Organ Symphony has four movements, Fantasia, Fugue 1, Adagio, Fugue 2 (Toccata). This is an awe-inspiring edifice, perhaps an abstract answer to Langgaard's massive "Messis" for solo organ. With a highly complex polyrhythmic and polyphonic structure, and together with the aforementioned virtuosic playing required, its intellectual use of fugue in a modern context, craggy chords beyond even Lisztian dimensions in a digestion of the Faustian story, this is a powerfully dramatic listening experience by anyone's standards. Lehtola gives it an heroic reading, with the organ itself giving a formidable presence. The church acoustic is open enough to let the 32' Bourdon ranks form their fundamentals, which are felt rather than heard, but phenomenal detail remains present, even in the 5.0 multichannel track, which very much has a "you are there" feel.

Unearthly sonorities, wild, demonic moments, ear-pricking textures and orchestral eruptions all are here, as are gentle introspective moments. Given music of such quality and a fine BIS recording, I commend this disc to organ-lovers, who will no doubt hope to hear Aho's other solo organ works in forthcoming volume.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net