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Aaron Jay KERNIS (b.
Colored Field: Concerto for cello and orchestra
Musica Celestis (1990/2000) [12:22]
Air for cello and orchestra (1995/2000) [11:46]
Truls Mørk (cello)
Minnesota Orchestra/Eije Oue
rec. 17-19, 21, 22 April 2000, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis
CLASSICS 45464 [64:41]
Kernis was the youngest
composer ever to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize – in 1998, for
his String Quartet No.2. The award of a Pulitzer Prize -
any more than a Nobel Prize - is no absolute guarantee of
a serious and lasting level of achievement. Look back at
the list of previous winners – does anybody still read the
novels of Caroline Miller (a Pulitzer prize winner in 1934)?
How much of the concert music of Gail Kubik - Pulitzer Prize
winner in 1952 - gets performed or recorded? But in the case
of Kernis, I suspect, the judges selected a figure whose
work – at any rate the best of it – will last.
is not afraid of dissonance, not afraid of the unorthodox
and the challenging; but, on the other hand, he isn’t afraid
of consonance and lyricism either. Anybody who studied with, inter
alia, Charles Wuorinen, Morton Subotnick, John Adams,
Jacob Druckman and Bernard Rands is hardly likely to have
a strictly defined notion of musical possibility. But Kernis
isn’t a dilettante eclectic either; his music is far more
than a mere post-modernist shaking of the stylistic kaleidoscope.
There is a genuine personal vision, a coherent sensibility
and intelligence, underlying any superficial diversity of
the works on this present are arrangements/reworkings of
earlier compositions. The most substantial piece here, Colored
Field, was first written as a concert for cor anglais
and orchestra by the San Francisco Symphony, and premiered
by that orchestra in 1994, conducted by Alasdair Neale, with
Julie Ann Giacobassi as soloist. This version for cello was
specially prepared for Truls Mørk, who plays it here.
three movements which essentially follow the traditional
pattern, this is a moving and powerful work, a work of real
substance. Of the writing of the new version Kernis said “I
had originally conceived it vocally, and the cello seemed
the next best cousin to an English horn”. The first movement
had its origins in a visit to the concentration camps of
Auschwitz and Birkenau in 1989. Seeing children chewing blades
of grass, Kernis was struck by the sense that the grass had
grown in fields which were once ‘coloured’ by blood. It is
a powerful and complex image – a compressed image of innocence
and bitter experience, of death and regeneration, of man
and nature. The music itself seems to enact such polarities,
at times endorsing their antithetical nature, at other times
concerned to recognise the kinks and threads that join them.
In the first movement (called ‘Colored Field’ like the work
as a whole) the lyrical aria-like melodies of the cello have
to strive to be heard amidst and against complex orchestral
writing and occasional eruptions of percussion and dense,
visceral orchestral disruptions and comments. The second
movement (‘Pandora’s Box’) is on a kind of grotesque borderland
between the nightmare and the comedy of the absurd. Kernis
is quoted as saying that his guiding image in this second
movement was of “little black things slithering out of a
box” – things, one might add, that cannot ever be put back
in the box with any certainty or security. The title of the
last movement – ‘Hymns and Tablets’ – presumably alludes
to religious revelation (‘Tablets’) and the act of worship
(‘Hymns’). Both seem, finally, to offer only limited consolation
or certainty. The movement does, in general terms, make its
way from disturbance to a mood that, if not quite deserving
the name of serenity, is yet at least a pause from turmoil.
But the music never allows the solo cello to rest untroubled,
unchallenged for long. A brief period of personal integration
seems to be shared by others, when the soloist’s paraphrase
of the opening theme of the work is radiantly echoed by the
orchestra. But the moment is brief and precarious. It cannot,
by the very nature of things, endure. The soloist, the individual,
can only be part of a larger mutability, a larger conflict
between (for lack of better words) ‘good’ and ‘evil’ of which
(s)he may, by turns cause or victim. The music registers
a sense of the painful gap between moral expectation and
the realities of human motivation and behaviour. These, I
am aware, are no more than clumsy attempts to put into words
an argument conducted in musical terms – however clumsy,
however subjective they may be, they do perhaps register
my sense that this is music which makes the listener think
about matters of substance and importance. A fine work that
has already rewarded each listening more and more.
other two works here are rather slighter and rather less
interesting stylistically. Musica Celestis is an orchestration
(for strings) of the slow movement of Kernis’s First String
Quartet. A meditative piece of a certain beauty, it is music
which really needs to be heard in the context of the work
from which it comes. Without the other movements of the quartet
it sounds a little too simply ‘spiritual’, a little too much
like an attempt at a quasi-Barberesque Adagio. Air was
originally written for violin and piano, and then orchestrated.
It is predominantly elegiac in tone and not unattractive.
But after the complex discourse and stylistic multiplicity
of Colored Field it feels oddly naïve and limited.
throughout are exemplary. It is hard to imagine any of these
pieces getting better performances than they get here. Eiji
Oue clarifies structure and argument without ever losing
a sense of pulse and momentum; Mørk plays with passion and
delicacy alike. The rich colours of the Minnesota Orchestra
are captured in top quality sound.
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