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Aaron Jay KERNIS (b. 1960)
Colored Field: Concerto for cello and orchestra (1994/2000) [40:13]
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
VIRGIN 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.
Kernis 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 manner.
All 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.
In 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.
The 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.
Performances 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.
Glyn Pursglove


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