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Louis KARCHIN (b. 1951)
Chamber Symphony (2009) [22:46]
Rochester Celebration, for piano (2017) [6:35]
Postlude, for trumpet and piano (2019) [4:17]
Quest, for flute and harp (2014) [8:12]
Barcarole Variations, for violin and harp (2015) [12:25]
The Washington Square Ensemble
Margaret Kampleier (piano)
Sam Jones (trumpet), Han Chen (piano)
Alice Teyssier (flute), Ashley Jackson (harp)
Renée Jolles (violin), Susan Jolles (harp)
rec. 20 December 2015, American Academy of Arts and Letters (Chamber Symphony) and 9 July 2019, Drew University Concert Hall.
BRIDGE RECORDS 9543 [54:22]

Louis Karchin can already look back on a distinguished musical career, his compositions having been honoured with three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, four National Endowment for the Arts Awards, and Koussevitzky, Barlow, and Fromm commissions. His works have been recorded and released on the Naxos, New World, Albany and New Focus labels, as well as Bridge Records, so there is plenty to explore.

Premièred by the Washington Square Ensemble but also taken up by numerous other ensembles, the Chamber Symphony is the main attraction here, and it doesn’t disappoint. Revelling in “the discovery of new sounds and instrumental combinations”, this work has the kind of sounds one suspects the ever innovative Haydn might have explored if he were alive today. There is a luminosity and translucency to the sonorities here which hint at the Frenchness of Dutilleux. This is aided by percussion both tuned and not, and including piano along with light string lines and single winds. This is not to say that all the music is gentle and soft, but even where a head of steam is built up in the first movement you always have the sense of power in reserve. Cast in a fairly conventional three movements, the first both contrasts and integrates “diaphanous arpeggiations” with more hefty but still playful martial effects. The second is described as “a song without words”, with the singing voice expressed in the lines of a solo violin, the orchestra reduced yet further to create a nocturnal atmosphere with piano, percussion and tremolo strings. The third movement is a modified rondo described by the composer as “rambunctious”, the virtuosity of the orchestra tested in quicksilver changes and sometimes almost cartoonish wit.

Christian Carey’s booklet notes for this release declare that “the chamber works on the CD are in some ways reflective of aspects of the Chamber Symphony…”, each being written for featuring instruments, though the “gestural and harmonic elements akin to those in the symphony” that recur in some of these pieces might also be attributed to the composer’s general idiom in this ten-year period. Rochester Celebration indeed picks up the unexpected consonance of the symphony’s final cadence, throwing them into the complexities of its opening like jewels in a mosaic. This is an occasional work composed for a distinguished professor of piano, Barry Snyder of the Eastman School of Music, and it harks back to techniques in, if not really the style of, 19th century romantic literature. Postlude for trumpet and piano is “something lyrical and unabashedly melodic”, and an appendage to a larger piece written for Sam Jones. Its rippling piano accompaniment is a legacy of its original instrumentation for vibraphone, but it makes for a fine, compact concert piece in this setting.

Quest for flute and harp was originally written for a concert in Venice, for which the theme was “the influence of the 19th century Theosophical movement, Madame Helena Blavatsky, on the Dutch painter Mondrian.” Rather than attempting to find thematic relationships to this subject, Karchin instead pits the flute against the harp as if the former were Madame Blavatsky, and the latter her followers. This results in angularity and even violence, the high register of the flute imperious and the harp offering resistance, until greater unity is reached towards the end of the piece. Barcarole Variations is for violin and harp, a less common combination than harp with flute for some reason, but functioning very well here. The ‘variations’ are not literal in this case, and while there is a recognisable theme this takes its line through the work in the form of fragments or contours that become developed over seven sections. Skilful interaction between the instruments and distinctive contrasts carry the duration of this not insubstantial piece, which is in many ways the essence of Karchin’s ability to create new and highly personal statements from traditional means.

This is a superbly recorded and expertly performed recording made with outstanding musicians, many of whom are dedicatees of the pieces they are playing. Louis Karchin’s music is rewarding if not ‘easy’, the rewards coming from an appreciation gained over more than a few hearings of these works. The Chamber Symphony is certainly a masterpiece, and the subsequent chamber works are by no means mere fillers.

Dominy Clements

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