KALEVI AHO (b.1949): Sieidi for Percussion and Orchestra, Symphony No. 5.
Catalogue Number: 09W056
Format: SACD hybrid
Description: The stunning 5th Symphony (1975-76) is a work about conflict, contrast and the "incoherence of existence" by which the composer means the realisation that "joy may be mingled with sorrow, grief with comicality, love with anger ... communication problems and a lack of understanding arise. The relationships between nations are full of contradictions; different social ideologies or religions fight each other, often resulting in wars." The bold and original expression of these ideas is a symphony which the composer admits was a challenge to write, in which groups of material collide, overlap and confront one another, at times dividing the orchestra into two, each with its own conductor, pursuing its argument with no reference to the other, shouting past one another with no attempt to find common ground. It is a tribute to Aho's enormous skill that this never sounds like an incoherent mess, but a coherent tableau of scenes of battle, hostility and attempted mutual annihilation on a vast scale. His material is always tonal, and very audibly indebted to Shostakovich - in fact, sometimes the music gives the impression of overlapping extracts from Shostakovich symphonies being played simultaneously. The work is structured as a series of climaxes, each more massive and intense than its predecessor. Each section begins coherently enough, but then one orchestra starts diverging from the other in tempo, or they increasingly ignore each other and develop their own material, becoming progressively more belligerent and strident as they go, several times ingeniously reconverging when one tempo reaches a multiple of the other. Finally the whole thing flies apart in a contest of raucous fanfares and battering percussion, while somewhere in the nightmarish mix a dæmonic merry-go-round spins out of control. A sudden pause, and a moment of ethereal, glowing stillness, shocking in its consonance after the preceding tumult, but this vision of a new Eden cannot last, and a tramping march intrudes, finally and brutally overwhelming the fabric of the music. The percussion concerto "Sieidi" has become one of Aho's most popular works, and the reason is obvious. The score is thrilling in every way, from the masterfully deployed soloist to the opulent, dramatic orchestral contribution - almost a concerto for orchestra in itself - to the sure sense of narrative and harmonic progression, in one of Aho's most appealing demonstrations of his exciting, tonal idiom. The soloist is placed at the front of the stage, with the percussion instruments arranged in a row, and moves from left to right and back as the work progresses; much is made of interplay between the soloist and spatially positioned orchestral percussion at the extreme margins of the stage. The concerto begins with a djembe solo, which is followed after a bridge passage by the darabuka, five tom-toms and the snare drum, five-octave marimba, wood blocks and temple blocks, vibraphone and tam-tam. The first sections are driven, dynamic and propulsive, then during the marimba's episode a slower and more meditative section is introduced, the soloist duetting with the woodwind. Soon, though, the music takes flight again in an effervescent ‘scherzo'. The temple blocks join the timpani and orchestral percussion in an imposing slow ceremonial, magnificent but unsettlingly savage, like a funerary procession in some ancient culture. This is dismissed by the soloist transitioning to the vibraphone in a calm, exotically-tinged solo, later accompanied by mysterious chords and a sinuous saxophone solo. Ceremonial trumpets introduce and accompany an extraordinary solo for tam-tam, and then the soloist reverses direction and starts working backwards, starting with the vibraphone. This time the wooden instruments participate in lively dances, first Eastern, then perhaps Eastern-European. What sounds like a fast, exciting "finale" opens with the drums, now unleashed in an increasingly disreputable "drumkit solo". But Aho is much too original a composer to take this obvious route, and and the soloist now sets up an ostinato rhythm on the hand-struck drums, which accompanies a sequence of slinky woodwind solos. The concerto ends with the drums receding into the distance. Colin Currie (percussion), Lahti Symphony Orchestra; Dima Slobodeniouk.