Clarinet Quintet. Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano. Sonata for Two Accordions
Osmo Vänskä (cl); Sarah Kwak (vn); Gina DiBello (vn); Thomas Turner (va); Anthony Ross (vc); Susan Billmeyer (pn); Veli Kujala (acc); Susanne Kujala (acc)
BIS CD-1886 (75:10)
The clarinet has been well served by Finnish composers in recent years. Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, and Sebastian Fagerlund have all written substantial works for the instrument, each exploring different aspects of its technical and expressive potential. Kalevi Aho also follows his own unique path, although he remains more conservative than his three compatriots. But all fall under the long shadow of Sibelius, with expansive vistas, long phrases, and gradually evolving ideas dictating the pace and structure of their music.
Aho’s Clarinet Quintet is a substantial work in five movements, although
connections between them transform the structure into two long paragraphs. This is music on a grand scale, and every new idea is carefully prepared and cautiously introduced. We typically hear swirling, legato phrases from the clarinet, supported by intricate but resolutely diatonic textures in the strings. The clarinet occasionally gives a few growls or flutters, but that’s the limit of the extended performing techniques. The music always has a strong linear focus, but the Nordic chill in Aho’s aesthetic means that these lines always fall short of becoming distinctive melodies.
The Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano inhabits a similar sound world, but sets up a very different relationship within its ensemble. The work was written for a viola competition, forcing both the composer and the listener to challenge the assumption that the clarinet should predominate. Aho squares this circle by giving the three players almost equal prominence, although with a very slight emphasis on the viola. In order to make these subtle interactions perceptible, Aho lightens his textures yet further, and only just reaches the bare minimum of excitement and interest required to support the work’s 13-minute duration.
The identity of the clarinettist will come as a surprise to many. Osmo Vänskä, it turns out, took an unusual path to the conductor’s podium via the principal clarinet chair. His most notable position as a player was as principal clarinet with the Helsinki Philharmonic in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Now, of course, he is chief conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, and the group he has assembled for these chamber works is made up of the orchestra’s section principals. They give technically assured performances, subtly phrased and always nuanced in texture. Above all, these readings work because the players are able to create the ideal atmosphere for the music, spacious and open but never unduly relaxed. The high-quality audio from BIS helps, especially in the many entries where the clarinet enters
, an effect that falls flat if the engineering can’t give the player the required sense of spatial focus.
The Sonata for Two Accordions is another substantial piece, which Aho himself compares in scale to the longer piano works of Liszt. It grew out of a virtuoso sonata for one accordion, although there is clearly sufficient material and inspiration here to keep at least two players busy. As with the clarinet, Aho avoids extended playing techniques on the accordion, so there is none of the heavy breathing from the bellows or chromatic cluster glissandos that characterize Gubaidulina’s writing for the instrument. Instead, the music is based on Baroque contrapuntal forms, prelude, passacaglia, and fugue. Aho demonstrates that accordion duet is the ideal vehicle for intricate polyphony. The voices come through the texture with the utmost clarity, and although the music poses exceptional technical challenges to the players, it always feels idiomatically suited to their instruments. The sonata is a curious choice to complete this program, but it turns out to be the most adventurous and satisfying work on the disc.