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Leon KIRCHNER (1919-2009)
Sinfonia in Two Parts (1951) [17:04]
Toccata for Strings, Solo Winds, and Percussion (1955) [13:31]
Music for Orchestra (1969) [10:43]
Orchestra Piece (Music for Orchestra II) (1990) [9:07]
The Forbidden (2008) [12:13]
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 2008-17, Jordan Hall, Boston; Mechanics Hall, Worcester, USA
BMOP SOUND 1060 SACD [62:39]

This is my first venture into the world of Leon Kirchner's music. He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1919 but raised in Los Angeles. He studied with Arnold Schoenberg, Roger Sessions and Ernest Bloch, and it was these composers he eventually came to identify with rather than Hindemith, Bartók and Stravinsky, who provided earlier influences. Having said that, he didn't fully embrace the 12-tone system but took a more flexible approach to composition, embracing dissonance and free atonality. I don't find his music as severe as Webern or Stockhausen, neither is it as approachable as Shostakovich. It sits somewhere in between, more closely resembling that of Alban Berg. This release presents a satisfying overview of the composer's orchestral music, spanning a period of almost sixty years from 1951-2008.

In 1951 Kirchner was fortunate to meet Dmitri Mitropoulos, an ardent champion of contemporary music. Impressed by the composer's String Quartet, the conductor asked to see the score of the newly-composed Sinfonia. It made a striking impression on him and he decided to premiere it a year later at Carnegie hall. The one-movement work is in two linked sections. In the first there is an abiding sense of portent, which alternates with moments of serene introspection. When the drama is at full-throttle the orchestration is blustering and indignant. The second part transports us to a more elevated plain, where there is hope and some fulfilment.

Four years later came the Toccata for Strings, Solo Winds, and Percussion. This imaginative score harnesses counterpoint and biting rhythms. At times the music is coltish and exuberant, at others ruminative and pacific. Kirchner's deft handling of orchestration and employment of vivid coloration is also evident in the Music for Orchestra, a commission from the New York Philharmonic to celebrate its 125th anniversary in 1969. Kirchner gives each of the orchestral sections their moment in the sun, achieving miraculous segues, splicing together the different groupings into a spectacular soundscape of coruscating brilliance and intensity.

Orchestra Piece (Music for Orchestra 11) began life as a variation on 'New York, New York', Kirchner's contribution to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's celebration of Leonard Bernstein's 70th birthday. This was expanded and gestated into the work we have here. In keeping with the Bernstein theme, it's energetic, jazzy and carefree.

The Forbidden was Kirchner's last composition, written in 2008. Its title refers to his use of tonality, “forbidden” at the time. This was his way of linking the past with the present, keeping "the art of music alive and well". The work had gradually evolved in the composer's mind since 2003, undergoing a process of genesis and refinement over the years until its final completion. It started off as the Piano Sonata No. 3, then was cast as the String Quartet No. 4, and finally orchestrated into the form we have here. The music is potent, intense, turbulent and yearning and exploits the full range of the orchestral forces.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose deliver powerful and sonically stunning performances of these wonderful scores. The sound is demonstration class. This is one of the most compelling recordings of modern music I've ever come across.

Stephen Greenbank

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