Aho Contrabassoon Concerto; Tuba Concerto
Recent BIS issues of Kalevi Aho’s concertos for flute and clarinet – entrancingly beautiful and elementally energetic works, respectively – have confirmed him as one of the foremost composers of concertos in our day. The two concertos on this new disc for the bassi profundi of the orchestra strike me as less instantly rewarding, but that may be just that their rewards are more of the slow-release kind.
The Tuba Concerto of 2000-01 is a predominantly cantabile piece, literally so towards the end of the finale, where the soloist sings and plays simultaneously (a gimmick I was hoping Aho would avoid, since it does invite mischievous onomatopoeic associations of the “mating walruses” kind). What intrigues me more are the bursts of energetic music in all three movements, but especially the opening of the second, which provide the foil to the prevailing lyricism; these are surprisingly evocative of Aho’s compatriot Aulis Sallinen (the vintage period of his Third and Fourth Symphonies) yet lead to dramatic breakthroughs wholly personal to Aho. It was those Sallinenesque ideas that persuaded me it was worth persisting, not forgetting the intrepid virtuosity of Øystein Baadsvik.
The contrabassoon is an even less likely candidate for a concerto of symphonic scope and seriousness. In this case the gimmicks are the pairing of contra at various points with saxophone and heckelphone, and the exploration of an extended upper register, apparently only possible on the recently invented “acoustically superior” instrument that Lewis Lipnick plays (with what seems like superhuman dexterity). That this is “the most challenging [but] also the best” work of its kind (Lipnick) may or may not be enough to win it a wide audience. But once again Aho’s ascetic-declamatory vein (imagine the most stygian late Schnittke but with a greater sense of direction and purpose) encourages and rewards rehearing, as do the superb playing and recording.