Album review: Milestone premiere recording of Kalevi Aho’s Sieidi with Colin Currie, the Lahti Symphony and Dima Slobodeniouk

In western symphonic music, percussionists have gradually made it from the back seat sound effects team all the way to the limelight. Augured by Hector Berlioz’s pursuit for enhanced colour and dramatic effect, the orchestral percussion section was augmented with variety of drums, bells, cymbals and tam-tams. 

Followed by other experiments, such as Wagner’s anvil chorus in Das Rheingold (1851-54) or the keyboard and percussion ensemble of Stravinsky’s Les Noces (1914-17/1923), the shape and sound of orchestral music was changed forever. 

Finally, upon its 1933, Edgar Varèse’s Ionisation (1929-31), the first Western concert score for percussion only was heard. As years went by, the percussion literature was multiplied with various pieces for soloists and ensembles, including concertos. 

Nowadays, percussion concerto is a flourishing medium, with several extraordinary forays by notable composers entering the repertoire on a regular basis. In the course of the new millennium, concertos by Einojuhani Rautavaara, James MacMillan, Jennifer Higdon, Peter Eötvös, Helen Grime and Andrew Norman have emerged, to name but a few. 

In 2010, Kalevi Aho made his contribution to the genre with Sieidi, one the best-loved and most frequently performed of all the percussion concertos around. Like most of the concerti referred above, Sieidi was written for the fabulous percussionist Colin Currie, who premiered the piece in the Royal Festival Hall on 18 April 2012, with Osmo Vänskä conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  

Some eight years and a multitude of performances later, Sieidi gets its premiere recording on BIS, with Currie as soloist and Dima Slobodeniouk conducting the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Taken from studio sessions at the Sibelius Hall in January 2020, the new recording combines an outstanding performance with excellent engineering, to a dazzling effect.  

Among Aho’s oeuvre, concertos play a crucial role. To date, a total of 32 concertos have appeared, covering most of the standard orchestral instruments, as well as more unusual ones, such as the theremin, the accordion and the recorder. In each case, Aho has come up with an inspired score, written with vivid imagination and solid craftsmanship. 

In the Sámi language, Sieidi denotes an ancient cult place, such as an unusually-shaped rock or even a whole mountain fell. Even though Aho’s score does not refer to the Sámi tradition in particular, the aspect of a ritual journey is very much present throughout the concerto. 

Written in one movement and lasting circa 35 minutes, Sieidi is divided into several sections, contrasted in tempo, texture, colour and character. The soloist plays nine different instruments: djembe, darabuka, tom-toms, snare drum, marimba, wood blocks, temple blocks, vibraphone and tam-tam.

Percussionist Colin Currie and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra rehearsing Sieidi at the Sibelius Hall. © Jari Kallio

Deployed at the stage front, the soloist travels across the stage twice during a performance, from the right to the left and back. Joined by three orchestral percussionists and a full symphonic ensemble, the soloist acts as a master of ceremonies, summoning fantastic sonic realms, echoed by the orchestra. 

The concerto opens with a solo djembe passage, joined by a deep, slow beat from two antiphonal bass drums. The orchestra joins, with a solemn tutti reminiscent of a classic black-and-white Finnish film score. 

A series of enthrallingly intense interactions ensues, as the soloist and the orchestra venture through some of the most extraordinary realms of sound. Each time the soloist changes from one instrument to another, the orchestral fabric adapts to the new sonics accordingly. With Aho’s impeccable craft for orchestration, wondrous things arise from the extended instrumental setup. 

One of the most beautiful instrumental combinations is the contemplative duet between the solo vibraphone and an orchestral saxophone in the midway. Another case in point occurs near the end, as the solo lines for cor anglais, oboe, trombone, trumpet, tuba and double bassoon are woven together with darabuka, making a lasting impression.

Sieidi closes with a sublime dialogue of solo djembe and three castanets, dissolving into the hue of a rainstick choir over a bed of ppp strings.    

For a soloist, the concerto sets a challenge par excellence. The nine solo instruments call forth a multitude of percussion techniques, thus testing the full capacity of the performer. In addition, the ever-shifting moods require utmost sensitivity and expressive intensity. 

With Currie, the cascade of textures, rhythmic profiles and harmonic colours, embedded within the solo part, is awaken into sonic reality with astounding virtuosity, both in terms of technical fluency as well as spiritual commitment. 

Slobodeniouk and the musicians of the Lahti Symphony embrace Aho’s score with tremendous energy and musicianship, both as soloists and members of a top-class symphonic ensemble. With their unparalleled experience in performing Aho, the music is abundant with memorable solo passages and awe-inspiring tutti. 

Admirably balanced, the interplay between the soloist and the orchestra is always on par, yielding to the most rewarding aural experience. Without question, the premiere recording of Sieidi will be counted among the milestones of the splendid Aho discography on BIS.  

Sieidi rehearsal with Colin Currie, the Lahti Symphony and Chief Condutor Dima Slobodeniouk at the Sibelius Hall

On the new album, Sieidi is paired with Aho’s Symphony No. 5 (1975-76). Rarely performed, the one-movement score contains some of the most dense writing the composer has ever penned. Throughout the symphony, several disjointed musical processes occur in parallel, resulting in sonic mazes à la Ives, with echoes of Shostakovich on the surface. 

Though lasting only twenty four minutes, the symphony contains an enormous amount of musical material. With each of the layers following its own musical logic, the overall structure amounts to considerable complexity. The tempi are mostly fast, with brief passages of tranquillity serving as transitions from one section to the next.

The symphony is set in motion with a series of insistent chords, contrasted by e-flat clarinet and trumpet lines, resulting in several musical strata.  As the symphony unfolds, musical ideas get zoomed in and out, with constantly shifting focus. 

With its detailed fabric, the symphony yields to gigantic chamber music. The orchestral musicians are turned into a formidable line-up of soloists, each developing musical ideas of their own. These developmental arcs are often cut short, along the twists and turns of the music. 

In the course of all the hyperactivity, many intriguing surprises occur. Based on a solid dramaturgy, the music balances on the threshold of our sensory capacity, to an enthralling effect. 

The symphony culminates with an earth-shattering climax, as an overflow of musical ideas collide into a sonic cataclysm. As the turbulence finally dissolves into silence, a coda ensues. Led by solo horn, joined by brass and bells, a brief lament is heard. 

Yet the symphony does find resolution. Instead, the opening chords return, now with the weight of the entire orchestra set upon them. With extended momentum, the symphony finally hammers itself into a forced close. 

Aho’s Fifth Symphony is not an easy piece to like in the common sense of the word, and that is actually a crucial part of its enchantment. With this stupendous score, the listener is definitely drawn away from the comfort zone. Yet the experience is strangely rewarding. And enhanced by repeated listenings. 

With Slobodeniouk on the podium, the Lahti Symphony provides a fiery performance, clad in a flood of orchestral colours. With amazing clarity, well enhanced by the top-class BIS engineering, the complex sonic web comes off admirably on disc. 

Recorded in January 2017 at the Sibelius Hall, the symphony makes an intriguing coupling with Sieidi. The two works could hardly be more different, which only makes the pairing even more fascinating. 

Probably the most substantial single release in BIS’s ever-expanding Aho series, the new album is a definite must. 

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Dima Slobodeniouk, conductor

Colin Currie, percussion

Kalevi Aho: Sieidi (2010) – Concerto for solo percussion and orchestra

Kalevi Aho: Symphony No. 5 (1975-76) 

Recorded at the Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland on January 2020 (Sieidi) and January 2017 (Symphony No. 5)

BIS-2336 (2020), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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