Jonathan LESHNOFF (b.1973)
Piano Concerto [25.22]
Symphony No. 3 [34.36]
Joyce Wang (piano)
Stephen Powell (baritone)
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri, 20-22 2016, 22-24 November 2019
REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-739 SACD [59.58]
One of the joys of reviewing is the opportunity to encounter the music of composers outside personal comfort zones. Sometimes, there is disappointment, when the music is at best banal, at worst of no discernible merit. The true delight is to encounter a composer with something very distinctive to say, and best of all is when the encounter sends the reviewer in search of other discs by the same composer. That test has certainly been met here, and with flying colours.
When first heard, Leshnoff provides music overwhelmingly tonal, rich in melody, with a confident momentum. It is exciting in both variety of timbres and in its immediacy. Repeated hearings reveal new depths of expression – real emotional engagement without lapses into sentimentality.
The Piano Concerto has something of the Symphony in its construction. In four movements (Fast/Slow/Scherzo/Fast) rather than three, there is an obvious affinity, but so too is the symphonic, even Wagnerian, size of the orchestra. Forces are often reduced for a concerto: here we have a full body of strings (15/13/9/9/6), 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets, E-Flat clarinet/ bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion and harp. (The symphony adds an extra violinist, a second percussionist, and has one fewer trombones). Sound, unsurprisingly, is robust, but in the Concerto, Joyce Yang is never overwhelmed. Her playing is suitably forceful, but the slow movement, with the title ‘Neshama’, which is Hebrew for ‘breathing soul’, the third level (of five) of soul in Jewish mysticism, has a poised simplicity, a meditative quality wonderfully captured. The concerto overall deserves to be widely performed – even the most conservative concert-goer would enjoy its riches.
Leshnoff’s Symphony No.3 (of 4, so far) was inspired by the First World War, and the letters home by U.S soldiers. It is in 3 movements, Slow/”Gevurah,” with burning intensity/ Calm. The first movement has a long development from its string beginning to a powerful climax, with loud chords and two anvils played, each on opposite sides of the stage. The long second movement is comfortless and ferocious – with burning intensity. The final movement has many beautiful moments, though I am in two minds about the inclusion of the two letters written home by survivors of the Great War. Certainly they are sung with great eloquence and clear diction by Stephen Powell, but somehow they lead to a relaxation of tension, and I am not altogether convinced that their content is sufficiently intrinsically interesting to justify their place in the work: their significance rests not in the quality of the sometimes poetic wording, but rather in the external circumstances of their composition, in what we know about them rather than what they say. Many listeners will disagree fiercely with me; and I might change my view in future listening.
This quibble does not detract from the real substance of the music, nor the intensity of the performances, splendidly captured in SACD sound.
Previous reviews: John Quinn ~
Lee Denham (Recording of the Month)
Interview with the composer