LEON KIRCHNER: ‘Orchestral Works’ = Kirchner, piano & cond./Dmitri Mitropoulos/soloists – Albany

by | Nov 12, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews

LEON KIRCHNER: ‘Orchestral Works’ = Music for Orchestra, Lily for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra, Piano Concerto No. 1; The Former Harvard Chamber Orchestra/Leon Kirchner, cond./Diana Hoagland, soprano/ ensemble/Leon Kirchner, piano and cond./Leon Kirchner, piano/New York Philharmonic Society/Dmitri Mitropoulos – Albany Records TROY 1275, 64:15 ***:
Leon Kirchner, who died in 2009, was born of Russian parents in New York, grew up in Los Angeles and was trained, initially, as a concert pianist. His compositional style is truly unique. It takes several listenings to hear “trademark” orchestral voicings, counterpoint and harmonies that become recognizably his. Kirchner studied with Schoenberg and Roger Sessions and gradually developed a style, into the 1950s and beyond, that owes something to Schoenberg as well as to Hindemith and Bartok. Aesthetically, Kirchner found great affinity with Schoenberg in particular and, as a professor at Harvard, could defend the techniques and aesthetic of the Vienna School with great expertise. American composer John Adams studied with Kirchner and attests to the senior composer’s steadfast belief that composing is an arduous and very formal exercise that cannot be approached casually. (Adams, of course, subsequently went on to build his own formidable reputation on quite different practices)
This recording is a fascinating glimpse into Kirchner as a technical and formal master whose music does have its own voice – if channeled through the milieu of Schoenberg and Webern.  For instance, the Music for Orchestra is heard here in a live recording from a 1992 performance at Harvard. This score is a sparsely beautiful short work that functions almost as a small concerto for orchestra but with the intriguing reality that there are little to no technically virtuosic elements. Built on small groups of instruments and around prevalent use of a minor second, there is even an improvisatory section near the end. Scored as a true aleatoric element, Kirchner did this to achieve the effect he wanted rather than as a compositional ideology. This is a restless, but slowly paced work that leaves an eerie taste that remains quite effective. Kirchner himself conducted this performance of the Harvard forces.
Lily for soprano and chamber orchestra contains many of the same exotic use of timbre and drifting harmonic center that permeates much of Kirchner’s music but, in this case, Lily is extracted from the much larger opera of the same name Kirchner wrote in 1973-1977. Based on the novel Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, this is a very dense, theatrical imagery laden work that – in its full performance – includes pre-recorded electronics and even his wife’s voice recorded and mixed. The novel and libretto are equally complex and existential, in a way; so it seems, with the title character making a trip to Africa to – almost literally – get his head together. The text and music of this chamber version of the opening of the opera are appropriately moody and bizarre. First the spoken voice of Henderson and then that of his wife, Lily –sung – is full of a swimmingly abstract foray into meta-cognition and psychology. There are lines that refer to sensory deprivation therapy, examining one’s life and so forth. I found the music strangely fascinating but I suspect that the libretto would require ample background reading and research to even begin to understand the tone and plot. The performance, here, by Diana Hoagland, soprano, and a chamber group comprised of some of the east coast’s most prominent new music specialists and solo performers, conducted by Kirchner, is top notch.
This collection closes with a wonderful performance of Kirchner’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from 1953, conducted here by the great Dmitri Mitropoulos, an advocate of Kirchner’s music. This really is a brilliant piece that contains some echoes of Bartok in its very percussive use of the piano. The middle movement, the adagio, is amazing in its quietude and simplicity. The piano and orchestra play against each other, sharing nearly rhapsodic moments that are frequently full of the most dramatic tension and release. The outer movements are strongly written and require great skill from both the soloist as well as the orchestra.  The cadenza in the final rondo is quite disarming in its elegance. This entire work is well worth hearing and, in this case, reveals the prowess of Leon Kirchner as a performer; as a highly skilled pianist.
This music is probably not going to appeal to everyone but I do think it should be heard. If you already like and understand some of the mid-twentieth century giants like Schoenberg or Bartok, even Berg, you will certainly like Kirchner’s contributions. If not, you may still find his music an eccentric yet captivating experience.
—Daniel Coombs

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