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Aaron Jay KERNIS (b. 1960)
Dreamsongs for cello and orchestra (2013) [26:05]
Viola Concerto (2013-2014) [32:38]
Concerto with Echoes (2009) [16:24]
Tumbalalaika (Trad. Yiddish, arr. Kernis) [0:56]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fughetta, Op. 32 No. 4 (1839) [1:49]
Joshua Roman (cello)
Paul Neubauer (viola)
Aaron Jay Kernis (piano)
Royal Northern Sinfonia/Rebecca Miller
rec. 2016, The Sage, Gateshead, UK

The popularity of Aaron Jay Kernis’s music has steadily increased among worldwide audiences over the last quarter of a century. This can be traced back to three events. In 1996, Decca imprint Argo agreed to a five-year deal to exclusively release his music on disc; a couple of years later, Kernis won the Pullitzer Prize for his second string quartet Musica Instrumentalis; in 2002 he was also awarded the coveted (and lucrative) Grawemeyer Prize for the orchestral work Colored Field. Quite apart from those early Argo discs, which focused mainly on Kernis’s orchestral works, an array of labels have taken up his cause further, notably Naxos and Virgin. Now Signum release their second Kernis disc. (The first, Goblin Market, was nominated for MWI’s disc of the year back in 2011 - review).

The present disc combines two recent solo concertante works for cello and viola with a third
concerto-type opus for chamber orchestra directly inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. I recall that those early Argo discs were originally released in a series of American music that also included composers such as Michael Torke, Robert Moran and Terry Riley. It might then have been easy (and rather lazy) to categorise Kernis as something of a post-minimalist, especially considering he had studied under John Adams. In fact, most of those Kernis discs contained accessible and beautifully orchestrated pieces that perhaps ultimately lacked a sense of real individuality or memorability.

Two decades on, this disc reveals that while clear but colourful orchestration and beauty of sound remain obvious priorities for Kernis, there is something a bit more gutsy and challenging in the content. As far as this listener is concerned, at least a more consistent, refined style is apparent in these three recent works. The cello concerto Dreamsongs is dedicated to Joshua Roman, the accomplished soloist here, and consists of two substantial movements of equal length. The opening Floating Dreamsongs begins in what one might regard as familiar Kernis territory: a slowly unfolding and attractively melodic cello cantilena is gently shaded by harp and strings. As the music increases in intensity, an astringent climax presages more ambiguous, uncomfortable material prior to a cadenza. Gradually the mood lifts as the orchestration fills out to include washes of tuned percussion. A further impassioned climax leads to the dissolution of the movement by way of chorale-like string chords. There is an arch-like structure at work here.

As its title suggests, the following Kora Song is influenced by African music, but not overwhelmingly so; in fact, the sounds of the lovely instrument that gives the movement its name are very naturally absorbed into the whole. On this occasion, the beguiling textures are matched with music that seems more focused and mature than Kernis’s pre-2000 music. While he is still more than capable of producing melodic material with real lyrical appeal (e.g., from around the 8:00 mark here), jagged rhythms and dissonant harmonies are integrated with confidence, and they contribute to a much more compelling and varied musical argument. I found Dreamsongs to be colourful in its sounds, convincingly structured and certainly worthy of repeated listening. Roman plays the solo part with real style and obvious commitment, while Rebecca Miller clearly has an affinity with this composer’s music and shapes a satisfying response from the Royal Northern Sinfonia. I would argue that this is one of Kernis’s most successful scores to date.

The three-movement Viola Concerto is more ambitious still, a darker, more serious work which presents a different challenge altogether to performers and audience alike. Once again the dedicatee Paul Neubauer performs the sometimes confrontational solo part. In his informative notes, Kernis identifies two key musical influences that lurk beneath its surface. The first is the music of Robert and Clara Schumann. Neubauer recorded Robert Schumann’s viola output on a disc which evidently moved the composer and prompted him to reassess the works of the tragic romantic master and his wife. The second impulse was the soloists’s interest in folk music; Kernis decided to use the traditional Yiddish song Tumbalalaika as the basis for the melodic content of the extended third movement - in tandem with the rhythm and melody of Schumann’s Fughetta from his Op. 32 pieces. Accounts of both of these little pieces are thoughtfully included as a pendant to the concertos.

Two shorter movements precede this rather hefty finale. The introductory Braid (an allusion to the ornate embroidery-like synthesis of its melodic and harmonic content) features terse agitated material from the soloist, set against shimmering percussion and ever more densely orchestrated accompaniment before it reaches an ethereal conclusion. The following Romance taps into what Kernis describes as the “Brahms/early Schoenberg tradition”. I feel the title is somewhat misleading; the musical material becomes more troubled and dissonant as it proceeds, although one can certainly detect a little of the spiritual essence of Verklärte Nacht here, while the piquant if elusive counterpoint provides yet more evidence of greater adventure in this composer’s recent output.

I was less convinced by the 20 minute finale, alas. The viola line throughout seems gravid with ambiguity, even regret. The accompaniment seems fractured and, on first hearing at least, lacks coherence. There are brooding brass chords, and odd interjections from tuned percussion. About halfway through the movement the solo viola seems to take on a more tender tone, albeit one still touched by tragedy. As the dialogue between soloist and orchestra builds in intensity, the passage starting at around the 13:00 mark assumes a particularly agonised character. The Yiddish qualities of the folksong really begin to emerge towards the end of the piece, especially in the form of klezmer-type content for the clarinet and the emergence of what sounds like a melodica. The piece ends enigmatically.

One cannot but admire the soloist Paul Neubauer’s superb performance here. His is a truly demanding part, yet the fluency of his playing belies its difficulties. He coaxes some ravishing colours from his instrument. The accompaniment presents its own challenges, which are again triumphantly met by orchestra and conductor alike. If one is naturally suspicious of music that gives up its secrets immediately (a criticism that might have been levelled at some of Kernis’s earlier works), the opposite is the case here. The Viola Concerto is a tough nut to crack. While I am now a little more familiar with it, I remain to be convinced by what I feel is an awkward structure – at around 33 minutes I wonder if it might benefit from some judicious pruning, most obviously in the finale. However, I vow to persevere with it because the musical material itself is both serious in intent and absorbing in its own right.

The lightest (and shortest) of the three concertos here is the concluding Concerto with Echoes. It takes both the idea for its name and its inspiration from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, whose opening bars feature two solo violas shadowing each other’s material. Kernis’s work is scored for a chamber orchestra without violins. It opens with a brief, slow introduction which contains the harmonic DNA of the work and precedes a toccata-style movement, attractively laid out. The slow movement is built, according to the composer around a passacaglia-like structure. Notwithstanding twinkling percussion (bells – and are they antique cymbals?) there is something of the modern English pastoral tradition about this movement which at times recalls Tippett. The movement unfolds with increasingly colourful orchestration. This is both tactfully applied and successfully executed. The brief and attractive finale has an Italianate sensibility. Kernis alludes to a courtly dance in his notes. The democratic sense of interplay between different sections of the band is delightfully realised.

The Signum recording has real presence and detail, and the superbly prepared Royal Northern Sinfonia under Rebecca Miller perform all three pieces with palpable elan and absolute commitment. The composer could certainly not have received more enthusiastic advocacy. While the more attractive music may be found in the outer works, Kernis’s viola concerto provides the biggest challenges to the listener; of course these may in time evolve into its greatest rewards.

Richard Hanlon



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