Kalevi Aho Premiere

BLUR (Fragrance Free Mix)
Clarinet Concerto [World premiere]
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Martin Fröst (clarinet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Hayden Jones

Reviewed: 22 April, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It is becoming very difficult to dislike anything that Osmo Vänskä conducts during his visits to London. His clear and precise conducting style, natural ability to inspire a high standard of musicality and, most importantly, his supremely good musical taste ensures that no performance is ever dull or self-indulgent.

A similar statement could be made about his compatriot Kalevi Aho: a versatile and accessible composer whose works deserve the widest currency. His Clarinet Concerto was commissioned by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust on behalf of the Swedish virtuoso Martin Fröst. Fröst and Aho subsequently met in November 2004 to discuss the work. Fröst took this opportunity to display some of the technical tricks that increase the virtuosity and expressiveness of the instrument. With this expanded range of possibilities Aho went ahead and completed the five-movement concerto.

Fröst’s blood-vessel-bursting virtuosity coupled with Aho’s powerful, dramatic and, at times, haunting ‘Tempestoso’ opening movement was engaging and intense. The ‘Cadenza’ second movement gave Fröst a chance to push the boundaries of his instrument even further with trills that surely take an almost-superhuman power to sustain. Vänskä conducted the BBCSO with flair and precision, directing steadily through the relentless time-signature changes of the Vivace con brio third movement – described by the composer as a “dance of death”. Fröst made light work of Aho’s fiendishly difficult writing. The final two movements had a more mysterious and haunting quality: Fröst’s ghostly tremolo in the concluding eerie moments of ‘Epilogo’ gave a satisfying culmination to this highly accomplished and entertaining concerto.

Vänskä’s common sense way with Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 meant that he wasn’t adding lashings of custard to this, the grand sticky-toffee pudding of symphonies. Instead he opted for a no-nonsense approach. The light and sometimes gritty (but never sour) string tone of the BBCSO remained full-bodied without being overtly rich and helped set the tone for this effervescent performance – Vänskä ensuring that the first and second movement had plenty of momentum. The clincher for any performance of this work is the clarinet-led Adagio; here Vänskä and the BBCSO kept well within the boundaries of tastefulness to deliver a delicious, beautifully judged reading. The searing account of the finale reclaimed this work as a truly great symphony rather than a much-maligned popular classic.

The evening got off to a foot-tapping start with Todd Levin’s 1994 Brit-art inspired BLUR (Fragrance Free Mix). Though not anything to do with Damon Albarn and his Britpop outfit of the same name, the piece is a curious hybrid of 1990s’ dance music, lurid Technicolor blaxploitation soundtrack and Elmer Bernstein! A disc of Levin’s music including BLUR appeared on a short-lived DG CD in the mid-nineties played by the LSO. Levin’s six-minute orchestral acid-house roller-coaster of a ride was given a genuinely committed and rhythmically watertight performance, considerably more convincing than on the LSO’s recording.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 1 May

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