AHO Wind Quintets (Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet)
Kalevi Aho likes nothing more than a compositional problem to solve, as witness his 28 concertos, many for unlikely instruments. The challenge with the standard wind quintet line-up, the composer says, is in achieving unanimity and balance from instruments of contrasting tone production. His Wind Quintet No 1 (2006) is certainly a puzzle but is arithmetically and texturally clear. Aho brings neat solutions to the tessitura problem (the horn usually plays low, giving middle-ground space to the bassoon) and gets the pianissimos he so craves by having musicians wander off and play offstage. That’s how the piece ends, with a very Finnish disappearance into silence.
The Wind Quintet No 2 (2016) goes the same way, with toneless breath noises ultimately inducing the silence from which the music came. This piece is more symphonic in scale and argument. In the opening movement the instruments lay their cards on the table and proceed to indulge in a complex but inconclusive 11 minute game (Aho says it’s 14 minutes in the booklet, so the performance must be on the quick side). There is some of the First Quintet’s clarity in the Shostakovich-like chase of the second movement (the flautist switching to piccolo), while the slow movement, with its atmospheric flutter-tongues, put me in mind of the twisting deep brown colours of the Act 2 interlude to Britten’s Albert Herring (the oboist plays a cor anglais and the flautist an alto flute).
Here and elsewhere, Aho’s brilliance at problem-solving and technical composition can conceal a slight lack of material carbohydrate, which might be why the works retreat into the woods rather than charge home. But there is plenteous atmosphere and much colour (however narrow the palette) in these performances – not just expert but painstakingly prepared and deeply considered.