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Jonathan LESHNOFF (b 1973)
Piano Concerto (2019) [25:22]
Symphony No 3 (2015) [34:56]
Joyce Yang (piano)
Stephen Powell (baritone)
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. live 20-22 May 2016 (symphony), 22-24 November 2019 (concerto), Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, USA
Texts included

It is always a privilege for a reviewer to assess a new recording, but also a rare one when the recording in question is of new (or not previously recorded) works, for the onus is on the reviewer not just to critique the performances, but also somehow to give the reader a sense of their merits and the style of the music under review. I have therefore lived with, and listened to, this disc for quite a while, and it is only now that I feel I can properly do justice to any commentary on it.

In the first instance, Jonathan Leshnoff (b.1973) is not a totally new name to me, as I have previously  been suitably impressed with Reference Recordings’ release of his Double Concerto last year (review) which was coupled with the high-profile release by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Indeed, I felt the best thing about that recording was actually the concerto itself which, with no discernible link to the Tchaikovsky, quite held its own with the better-known work. So now Reference Recordings have followed that up with a new recording containing Jonathan Leshnoff’s Third Symphony (2015) as well as his Piano Concerto (2019).  Both are world-premiere recordings, the symphony set down a week after its premiere performance in 2016, while the Concerto was recorded live at its premiere in November 2019, and both are treated to excellent orchestral playing, as well as superb sonics from Reference Recordings – indeed, the warmth of the sound and balance between soloist and orchestra in the concerto are hugely impressive on this hybrid SACD, not least as it is live.

The disc opens with the Piano Concerto, a four-movement work lasting in total some 26 minutes and dedicated to the soloist on this recording, Joyce Yang, who had previously impressed the composer when he saw her performing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. The orchestral forces required demand a large ensemble with a full complement of strings, harp, triple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, plus bass and snare drum, as well as a marimba (a kind of xylophone if, like me, you were wondering). However, this isn’t a “barn-storming” concerto in the manner of Tchaikovsky, Brahms or Rachmaninov, where the soloist is often pitted against the might of the full orchestra; rather, it operates on a wittier and more colourful scale and puts me in mind of the aforementioned Prokofiev concerto, with which it shares the same key, as well as the Ravel Concerto and de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.  That said, this is not a derivative work – the wit and brilliance that impressed me so much with Double Concerto (premiered in 2018) are once more very evident, along with memorable melodies and scintillating orchestration. If the opening subject of the first movement doesn’t initially sound wholly promising, the skill with which the composer then expands and develops it thereafter is hugely engaging and its reappearance at the coda of the whole work certainly packs a considerable emotional punch. In between, the second movement, an Adagio (or ‘Slow’ as the composer marks it) is hauntingly moving, while the brief third movement coruscates and shimmers like the best of scherzos, before the final movement (“kinetic and propulsive” to use the description by the composer) brings everything home to that triumphant conclusion. The piano part glitters and sparkles and is despatched with considerable panache by Joyce Yang here, who is aided and abetted by the sympathetic support of the Kansas City Symphony under their music director, Michael Stern. The composer could not have wished for more dedicated performers for the premiere of his concerto and the only quibble I have is that the score states that the piece should only last some 22 minutes, whereas this actual performance lasts some 4 minutes longer, although in the grand scheme of things I’m not sure this really matters. Ultimately, this is a work which, much to my surprise and delight (as it’s a twenty first century composition), is one I have returned to often and always with much pleasure, so it comes with a huge recommendation from me, with a wish that it should be taken up by more pianists and orchestras, as it certainly deserves to be absorbed into the wider repertoire.

The symphony is a very different work. Conceived in 2013, it received its premiere performance some three years later by the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra under their music director Michael Stern, who had commissioned the composer to write a symphony commemorating Kansas City’s cultural resources, to which the composer responded with the idea of writing something which acknowledged the presence of the World War One museum located in the city as being the only one in the USA, also with a view to the upcoming centennial of America’s entry into that war in 2017. In short, it is a war symphony.

The composer states in the liner notes how writing a symphony:

….is a rite of passage for a composer. It is a rare opportunity to express compositional logic, form and emotion directly to the audience without the intermediary of a solo instrument or a specific request about the nature of the composition (such as ‘write an opener’). It is as close to the pure music embedded within the composer’s soul that s/he can have.

I feel that this is both relevant and important for, unlike some of the other great war-symphonies particularly of the twentieth century, such as Shostakovich’s Eighth, Honegger’s Third, or Vaughan Williams’s Sixth, where the terrifying message of the music is often conveyed with an almost bludgeoning power by the orchestra (maybe reflecting those composers’ first-hand experience of war), Leshnoff’s is rather different. This isn’t to criticise him; rather, it is to try and convey to you his musical style within this work. Perhaps too, it is a reflection on Western society’s current perception of war – one only needs to compare the battle scenes conveyed on film of Shakespeare’s Henry V, to note how the more patriotic and colourful dulce et decorum est pro patria mori of Olivier in 1944, segued to the senseless misery, mud and rain of Branagh in 1989, to realise that perceptions do - and can – change. For his symphony, Leshnoff requires a large orchestra of full strings and harp, triple woodwind, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, plus two anvils placed at opposite sides of the orchestra and a solo baritone for the final, third movement and it all lasts around 34 minutes.

The first movement opens with a lament, the music initially recalling Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and seems to evoke the absolutely senseless loss of life of war. It is at once engaging and moving, before developing into something more troubled, the orchestration being heavier (including the use of the anvils), which brought to my mind Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica, as both works seem to share a sense of grinding physical despair, hardship and suffering before this nine-and-a-half-minute movement wound down and returned to the more elegiac material of the opening. The thirteen-minute middle second movement starts quite abruptly and suddenly, with agitated strings destroying any serenity the close of the previous movement may have provided. I was reminded at this point of Shostakovich, particularly the way he, too, shatters the stillness of the first movement of his Eleventh Symphony in a similar fashion. Leshnoff subtitles this movement as ‘with burning intensity’ and the underlying string configurations are busy and constantly moving forward in music the composer himself describes in the liner notes as “my depiction of war and battles”. However (and this is the only time I feel I have to criticise the music), I’m not quite sure if it all quite works - the problem is that Leshnoff uses these string figurations to drive the movement forward continuously and as a consequence, at over 13 minutes it just doesn’t quite work, as there is no melody for any musical development, nor any opportunity to unleash a terrifying orchestral onslaught as the strings would inevitably be drowned out. I sense that some of the angry snarls of the snare drum in the aforementioned Shostakovich symphony would have helped impart a more dangerous air to the proceedings, but instead, ultimately, I end up wondering what the music is really trying to depict – it all seems vaguely antagonistic rather than scary, battles as viewed via CNN rather than the horror of witnessing them first-hand. But at this point, as the music dies down, the composer plays his trump card when, at the start of the final movement, the solo baritone rises and sings: “Dear Mother” ….

Unlike the final movements of the three previously mentioned war-symphonies where Shostakovich ends his with a sense of ambiguity, Vaughan Williams by depicting nuclear annihilation (in spite of the composer protesting otherwise) and Honegger suggesting birdsong rising from the smouldering ashes and ruins, Leshnoff instead sets music to texts taken from letters home by men sent to fight that war from Kansas City and whose letters are housed in the War Museum there. It is a neat and interesting idea, wrong-footing the listener who may have expected something more lofty or profound and perhaps reflecting those changing perceptions, as mentioned earlier. Two letters are quoted, both from men who survived the conflict: the first is of a young soldier writing to his mother, amazed that circumstances had somehow plucked him away from his home and family to be in a foreign land, where his job as a guard finds him looking on in awe at battleships in the distance being lit by the moon. The second is from an older man, writing to his wife, saddened at being apart from her and contemplating the thought that he might not survive to see her again. The music in this movement is calm and serene and the text is sung with much warmth and richness of tone by Stephen Powell, who enunciates the words clearly and with great sympathy. The music is such that Leshnoff inspires us to think about the other side of that war – of men, still probably boys, missing their mothers and of husbands torn from their wives, wondering if they will ever see them again. As the symphony nobly draws to a quiet and serene conclusion, the baritone softly intones: “Should the God of all call upon me … and I never see you again, know that I died with your name on my lips ….” and one cannot help but be very moved, both by the sentiments as well as Leshnoff’s music.

In conclusion, the Piano Concerto is terrific and receives an equally terrific performance and recording here. The symphony too, while not without fault, is ultimately very distinctive as well and, as with the coupled concerto, it is difficult to imagine a more sympathetic or persuasive performance, nor a better-sounding recording. For those readers who enjoy the music of the first half of the twentieth century (outside the Second Viennese School), these scores will be easily accessible and enjoyable, as they are for me. In conclusion, this disc is a winner and I cannot recommend it highly enough to those curious about hearing new music which is both clever, colourful, melodic and, ultimately, very moving.

Lee Denham

Previous review: John Quinn

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