Almost thirty years separate these two works: Kalevi Aho’s First Piano Concerto dates from 1988–89 and the Timpani Concerto from 2015 (astonishingly, he has written another eight concertos since then – and not only concertos, of course). The Timpani Concerto, presented first on this disc, was written on request from the soloist here, Ari-Pekka Mäenpää, the timpanist of the Turku Philharmonic, which then commissioned the work. Aho’s booklet essay goes into considerable detail on how he went about familiarising himself with the timpani as a potential solo instrument, and how he worked with Mäenpää to arrive at a score that used the timpani at their most effective.
The trouble for any composer bold enough to attempt a timpani concerto is that the dramatic effect of a prominent timpani part in a normal orchestral score is itself enough to turn the work into a timpani concerto, at least for that moment, and although Aho’s orchestra may have the timpani soloist out in front of the orchestra like any normal concerto, the work sounds more like an orchestral essay with an active role for the kettledrums – they fulfil the same kind of role as the four horns in Schumann’s Konzertstück. Of course, any percussion concerto is going to rely on rhythm to an unusual extent, and the first, third and fifth movements of this one (encasing two quiet, mysterious ones) are charged with a wild energy that must be tremendously effective when experienced live – when, of course, the sight of the timpanist in ferocious activity will lend it an element of spectacle that it obviously lacks in a recording.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 opens in a bright swirl of activity – and brings the swift appearance of the Kettenspiel, an instrument Aho invented, an assemblage of chains; a siren makes a few brief appearances, too, in a frenetic lopsided dance; and the timpani here are hardly less active than in their own concerto. Aho’s essay on his piece explains the complex numerological basis of the composition, but though his words might suggest some dry, cerebral essay, the faster movements have an animal vigour, with Aho handling the orchestra with his customary freewheeling virtuosity; the rather Bartókian slower sections are animated by a tension that one senses won’t be long in breaking out. The solo part sounds appallingly difficult, but Sonja Fräki tackles it with striking confidence.
Both works play for half an hour, more or less, the Timpani Concerto continuously. The assurance of the two soloists is matched by performances of pyrotechnical brilliance from the Turku Philharmonic players under their two conductors. One imagines that the performances are authoritative (the composer must have been there), the recorded sound is of the usual BIS standard of excellence, and the album as a whole is a valuable addendum to the label’s ongoing representative of this indefatigable figure.
AHO: Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, Piano Concerto No. 1
Ari-Pekka Mäenpää (timpani), Sonja Fräki (piano), Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Erkki Lasonpalo, Eva Ollikainen