> Liszt: Totentanz / Piano Concerto No. 1 / Piano Concerto No. 2 / Strauss: Ein Heldenleben / Strauss: Four Last Songs / Aho: Luosto Symphony

LISZT: Totentanz. Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat. Piano Concerto No. 2 in
Arnaldo Cohen, piano; São Paulo Symphony Orch/John Neschling, cond.
BIS SACD 1530 TT: 57:08

STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40. Four Last Songs
Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orch/Yannick Nézet-Séguin, cond.
BIS SACD 1880 TT: 69:13

AHO: Symphony No. 12 "Luosto Symphony"
Taina Piira, soprano; Aki Alamikkotervo, tenor; Hannu Lehtonen, saxophone; Lahti Symphony Orch/Chamber Orchestra of Lapland/John Storgards, cond.
BIS SACD 1676 TT: 48:56

Brazilian pianist Arnoldo Cohen has a rathr quiet but distinguished career. In 1972, he won first prize in the Feruccio Busoni International Piano Competition, and since has given many concerts and appeard with many major orchestras. He seems to specialize in Liszt and already has recorded the B minor sonata for BIS; he also has recorded much music by Brazilian composers. He gives bold performance of these Liszt showpieces, dramatic, percussive and quite exciting. He is given splendid support by the fine São Paulo Orchestra under its dynamic conductor, John Neschling who happens to be a grand-nephew of both Arnold Schoenberg and Arthuyr Bodanzky who conducted Wagner at the Met from 1915-1939. Excellent sound from BIS, a resonant big-hall acoustic, with a rather brittle piano sound. A fine release!

This new Heldenleben is disappoiinting, a placid interpretation that never takes fire. Even the battle scene is sedate‚—no orchestral fireworks here. This massive Strauss score should be a sonic spectacle; the 1954 RCA recording with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony still is an audio marvel—and it sounds much more impressive than what is heard on this new issue. BIS recordings have a history of sonic excellence, but something went wrong here. Sound is bass-heavy and undefined, with rather dull percussion. The Four Last Songs are very well sung by Dorothea Röschmann, but does not challenge versions by Gundula Janowitz, Renée Fleming, Lucia Popp, Annaliese Rothenberger, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, to mention only a few.

Finland's leading composer Kalevi Aho (b. 1949) is hardly avant-garde, some might even call him old-fashioned as his music is no challenge for audiences. Aho has enormous interest in instruments usually not heard as soloists. He has written concertos for contrabassoon and tuba, and now focuses on the saxophone, which is featured prominently in his most recent major symphonic work, Symphony No. 12. There is a natural amphitheater in the Luosto mountain in the Sodankylä district of Finnish Lapland, which apparently is incredibly beautiful and has remarkable acoustics. In 2000, Aho was approached about writing "spatial music" to be performed in this venue by the Finnish Radio Symphony. Eventually the "Luosto" symphony was written to be performed by a full symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestr, six separate small brass groups, and two vocal soloists, all considerably separated from each other. The highly praised premiere took place in the mountain setting August 16, 2003, with the same performers heard on this magnificent recording made in March 2007 in Finland's Sibelius Hall. There are four movements that supposedly derive their inspiration from Lapland's natural surroundings and traditions. The first movement, The Shamans, features hypnotic huge bass drums that respond to each othe, rather like the battle of the bass drums, quite exciting indeed. The second movement appropriately is called Winter Darkness and Midsummer, and the third, Song of the Fells, features tenor and soprano soloists in a wordless vocalise that sounds like they are repeatedly singing "Ya ha" with no explanation of what this means. The symphoy ends with Storm of the Fells, a very realistic depiction followed by a pastorale conclusion again featuring the vocal soloists. It is a fascinating symphony, that probably will not be performed often because of its spatial demands. Program notes by the composer are important, and from a sonic standpoint, this is a knock-out. Recording producer Ingo Petry provides a detailed chart of location of performers, and one can clearly hear this in the imaginative surround sound engineering. It is quite spectacular, and audiophiles will be delighted. An intriguing issue, belonging in all SACD collections. A majority of SACD recordings don't take advantage of available channels; this one does. Thank you, BIS!

R.E.B. (October 2012)