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Aaron Jay KERNIS (b. 1960)
Color Wheel (2001) [22:30]
Symphony No. 4, Chromelodeon (2018) [29:36]
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. 2016-19, Laura Turner Concert Hall., Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, USA
NAXOS 8.559838 [52:13]

Last December, in my review of the previous Naxos disc devoted to Aaron Jay Kernis (containing his Symphony No 2 and Flute Concerto), I mentioned that the label had just recorded his most recent symphony. Nine months on and here it is, coupled with another world premiere recording of a much earlier work. Color Wheel was originally commissioned for the opening concerts at the Verizon Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new home which was inaugurated in 2001, its centenary year. Given that many of Kernis’s more recent orchestral works have been recorded on more than one occasion it is something of a surprise that Color Wheel has had to wait so long to appear on disc, especially since the Symphony No 4 with which it is coupled is barely a year old.

In the booklet note the composer describes Color Wheel as a miniature concerto for orchestra. He was originally minded to mould the piece according to the specific acoustical properties of the new hall but over time this concept mutated into a piece which would take advantage of the particular ‘sound’ of the Philadelphia Orchestra itself – it happened to be Kernis’s ‘home’ band and his attendance at many of their concerts during his teens would have a material effect on his choice of career. The title hints at a synaesthetic element and the composer admits to ‘seeing’ certain sounds and chords as particular hues. Color Wheel is the epitome of the loaded word ‘showpiece’ – a sombre brass and percussion led fanfare/chorale which alternates with strings opens proceedings before swirling winds lead the ear to perkier, lighter material. Each section of the Nashville Orchestra enjoys a moment in the sun in this restless episode. There are jazzy passages, emphatic timpani, and a busy harp embroidered within washes of tuned percussion. A slower central section incorporating gamelan-like bells and piano against velvet strings allows the listener to draw breath. It is archetypally American music – it just stops short of Hollywood. The agitated pulses recommence at 14:00 – there’s an especially engaging section which pits what sounds like an electric bass against a side-drum, and the concluding bars approach the exhilaration of a white-knuckle fairground ride. The orchestration of Color Wheel is certainly most colourful, and I would contend that this continues to be the greatest strength of this composer. In this piece though I would argue that the melodic material lacks distinctiveness and rather eludes memorability. There’s almost too much going on in the background – I strongly suspect it would be an exciting piece to witness live, however. The Nashville principals are certainly kept on their toes; whilst it’s certainly a good thing to hear this relatively early Kernis piece, in the context of this disc it really acts as an effective curtain-raiser for the more substantial symphony.

The release of Kernis’s Symphony No 4 means that the only one of the sequence still to be recorded is his massive Third, the Symphony of Meditation which was premiered in Seattle in 2009. The tiltle of the new work, Chromeloodeon leaves one in no doubt that tone colour assumes a significant role in its overall character (Aficionados of Harry Partch will certainly recognise this word). Kernis adopts a tripartite design, with two longish panels preceding a brief finale. Gentle bell sounds open the first movement Out of Silence, dissolving in a long chromatic thread that seems vaguely Middle Eastern or oriental in character. The strings enter with a flexible, monodic reflection of this and the arc of the movement unfolds most carefully and deliberately. It embodies a motion I would describe as gently swaying. There are lively little flute figures before we reach a major climax out of which the weave thickens. I certainly detect a good deal more emotional depth in this music than in recent concertante works of Kernis I have encountered in the last couple of years. The mood certainly darkens as the movement proceeds, notwithstanding regular episodes of delicate rapture. There’s some really exhilarating percussion action to be enjoyed before the movement concludes as it began, pensively.

It is followed by Thorn Rose/ Weep Freedom, an unusual title which alludes to the two different texts applied to the Handel aria Laschia ch’io pianga which turns up in both Armida and Rinaldo. The movement’s strident opening yields to a neo-baroque tune given by a solo string quartet, which is then gently inundated by lapping chromaticisms in the woodwind. The musical material for the rest of the panel seems to derive directly from this ‘conflict’- indeed the theme and variation form is easily perceptible; nor does Kernis disappoint in the contrast and colour of its presentation. By this point it struck me that Chromelodeon is surely the most compelling, serious symphonic work Kernis has produced to date. It moves toward a dissonant, challenging episode at 10:00, punctuated by weird, disconcerting glissandi in the trombones, although the flute and harp-led conclusion is more consoling at least until a final restatement of the quartet tune which is psychedelically distorted. The brief finale, Fanfare Chromelodia opens with appropriately brassy chorales which give way to rapid mechanistic passages contrived with real timbral imagination. There is more than a glint of characteristic Kernis humour in this attractive, savvy music. Given its context, occurring at the conclusion of a serious symphony, it proves more exhilarating and cathartic than Color Wheel, and one senses the players of the Nashville Symphony are having a real ball. The final ninety seconds are both thrilling and inevitable.

The Nashville Symphony give confident, finely-tuned accounts of both works – one would certainly not argue if this was the Boston Symphony or the Philadelphia Orchestra itself; Giancarlo Guerrero has a convincing command of the fine symphony in particular. As for the recording, the Naxos sound opens out pleasingly at the loudest climaxes and allows Kernis’s detail to emerge unsullied. Naxos’s continued commitment to this composer is most commendable, and this premiere recording of his Symphony No 4 will surely win him new friends.

Richard Hanlon

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