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Instrument and player personalities inform Kalevi Aho’s organic composition process

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

Kalevi Aho has a natural productivity that is never forced: his composition process flows as naturally as breathing.

The record label BIS has been a faithful ally in documenting Kalevi Aho’s significant body of work. Aho, who will be 75 next spring, has a natural productivity that is never forced: his composition process flows as naturally as breathing. Aho’s catalogue includes more than 30 solo concertos written for a remarkably wide range of instruments, such as baritone horn and theremin. In recent years, effectively all of his concertos have been born through requests from solo instrumentalists, including the three concertos featured on this album.

Aho’s intuitive working process begins from a starting point determined by the solo instrument and the intended performer of the piece, and from there the character and form of the work begin to evolve. Following his typical approach, he gently delves into the individual character of each instrument, both in terms of extended playing techniques and melodicism. Aho’s concertos require substantial technical skill but they are characterised by a certain contemporary shamanism rather than traditional soloistic virtuosity. 

Erkki Lasonpalo conducted the premieres of two of the concertos featured on the album, where he directs the players of St. Michel Strings and the Lappeenranta City Orchestra who come together to perform as Saimaa Sinfonietta. The combined orchestra, named after the large Eastern Finnish lake system, plays brightly and accurately. It has a particularly strong presence in the recorder concerto (2020), where Aho’s orchestrating skills shine through. 

Eero Saunamäki is an astonishingly versatile musician who switches seamlessly between the different-sized recorders featured in the concerto. The recorder’s characteristically quiet sound has not been a constraint for Aho but rather an incentive to create a colourfully sparkling orchestral texture which manages to sound full without overwhelming the instrument. 

At times, the recorder blends into the orchestra as a percussive instrument or intertwines with the orchestral wind section. Mysteriously beginning with the breathing of a bass recorder, the work is like an enchanted garden filled with the song of imaginary birds. Even the subtle echoes of Baroque music heard towards the end of the work are more fairytale-like than historical. In today’s Finland, the recorder is a completely timeless instrument, as proven by Saunamäki’s numerous premieres.

Esa Pietilä is another highly original musician, whose bold playing style is a centrepiece of the 2015 tenor saxophone concerto, sustaining a growing tension throughout. The saxophone is increasingly unleashed both sonically and rhythmically and, after an exciting darbuka drum entry, rises to an improvisatory climax influenced by Arabic music. Afterwards, the mood softens through a beautiful epilogue. The soloist’s authority is pronounced throughout the work, with the small orchestra taking more of a supporting role.

The album also offers a glimpse into Aho’s earlier style, as his Sonata concertante for accordion and string orchestra, composed in 2019 at the request of Janne Valkeajoki, is a reworking of the 1989 accordion sonata. 

The accordion texture is characterised by pianistic virtuosity, solidly contained by a classical structural framework: the work consists of two robust parts, beginning with a prelude and passacaglia followed by a prelude and fugue. The contrast with Aho’s free-flowing style of the 2000s is sharp and is well portrayed throughout the album. 

Typical of Aho’s earlier output, his Sonata concertante is filled with tight, impassionate intensity, powerfully maintained by Janne Valkeajoki’s accordion. The second prelude is cathartically fierce, and unlike many of Aho’s recent concertos which often fade in a mist, this work ends abruptly as if hitting a wall. 


Kalevi Aho: Concertos for recorder & tenor saxophone, Sonata concertante for accordion and strings. 
Eero Saunamäki, Esa Pietilä, Janne Valkeajoki. Saimaa Sinfonietta & Erkki Lasonpalo.
BIS 2023 

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham