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Leon KIRCHNER (b.1919)
Duo for Violin and Piano (1947) [11:09] Elisabeth Perry, violin; Joel Sachs, piano
"Flutings" from Lily (1973) [3:13]
Jayn Rosenfeld, flute
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1954) [14:25]
Geoffrey Michaels, violin; Beverly Lauridsen, cello; Joel Sachs, piano
Piano Sonata (1948) [14:46]
Cheryl Seltzer, piano
Triptych (1986/88) [20:53]
Maria Kitsopoulos, cello; Mark Steinberg, violin
Triptych recorded New York, 1992. All others recorded New York, 1983



Naxos here includes in its American Classics series a collection of chamber works by one man. They were composed over a period that covers most of the 20th century post-war period.  The chamber music medium has not yielded a great many works of classic status since the death of Schubert and Beethoven but within the confines of a certain style some of the works on this disc deserve to be taken very seriously and who knows, may one day be thought of as classics.

What is the Style? Well I do not think there is a name for it but the combination of the terms: post-war/modernist/atonal/ conventional instrumental chamber, may start to give a hint. In other words, the music is not as radical as Webern, Stockhausen or Cage, nor as accessible as Shostakovich. I am not familiar with Kirchner’s work as a whole but in what I have read, a common judgement seems to be that he has a voice of his own.  In the words of the CD booklet, “he has developed a powerful, inimitable language”.  I think this only partly true.  Kirchner studied with Schoenberg in California and it is easy to spot behind the music the shadow of the so-called “Second Viennese School” (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg).  A huge amount of chamber music was written under this influence, most of which has deservedly sunk without trace; including one or two of my own efforts! That which is different about Kirchner’s music on this disc is, I suggest, what makes it endure.

First, he largely eschews the stricter rigours of Schoenberg’s 12-tone serial technique. This is the procedure that provided the structural basis of music in the absence of tonally-determined organisational principles. Many listeners find serial technique intimidating because they read about it in programme notes, CD booklets etc. but find they cannot work out with their ears what is actually happening.

Second, and more importantly, Kirchner employs aggressive rhythms in his pieces that are not to be found in most works of the Second Viennese School. If you felt so inclined, you could dance to some of this music whereas I cannot think of anything by Webern, off-hand, which would lead me to tap my foot, let alone dance. This aspect of Kirchner’s music is much closer in spirit to two other 20th century giants, Stravinsky and Bartók.

Third, the music has a strong lyrical streak which often breaks out through the atonal and rhythmic rigour of the music thus providing attractive contrast.

Last, there is a refreshingly undoctrinaire approach to this type of music, the composer having no qualms about drifting into tonality, something that Schoenberg & Co would have studiously set out to avoid in their serial music.  

The performances (apart from Triptych) date from over twenty years ago and were originally issued by Musical Heritage Society. The players are clearly committed to the music, attacking it with great conviction. I do not know, but some may have been Kirchner’s former pupils – he was an influential teacher. Certainly, the pianist Cheryl Seltzer studied with him and she has written the notes for the booklet.  Her admiration shows both in her writing and playing. She plays Kirchner’s first piano sonata which I did not know but think is the most impressive work on the disc. Written at a time when the piano sonata had virtually died a death in serious music circles, it blends together a large range of contemporary styles into a substantial, powerfully developed work. Maybe this will be the most enduring piece on the disc and become a classic of keyboard literature for the period.

For those of you who haven’t been able to make it across the divide into 20th century modernism of this type, I highly recommend the disc. It could be the bridge that takes you there.

John Leeman




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