About this Recording
8.559195 - KIRCHNER: Duo for Violin and Piano / Piano Trio / Piano Sonata / Triptych
English  German 

Leon Kirchner (b.1919): Chamber Works

New music in the United States since World War II has been a spirited arena of diverse ideologies. Serialism, minimalism, indeterminacy, “New Romanticism”, and other musical pathways have attracted their passionate constituencies of composers and audience. Of composers who have chosen to go their own way, working apart from the ever-changing mainstream, a major figure is Leon Kirchner. Single-mindedly following his own vision, he has developed a powerful inimitable language.

Kirchner was born in Brooklyn in 1919, the son of Russian Jews. At the age of nine his family moved to Los Angeles, which was in the 1930s to become a creative mecca with the influx of distinguished figures fleeing Nazi Europe. Family hopes for a medical career were dashed when Kirchner put his zoology major behind him and entered Arnold Schoenberg’s class at U.C.L.A. (University of California at Los Angeles). He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from the University of California at Berkeley, where he had classes with Ernest Bloch. Awarded the Prix de Paris in 1942, he intended to go abroad, but because of the war settled in New York and studied with Roger Sessions. After army service he returned to Berkeley for graduate studies. He held professorships at the University of Southern California, Mills College, and, from 1961 until his retirement in 1989, at Harvard University.

Kirchner is a man of the broadest artistic and intellectual horizons, and an immensely perceptive teacher of both composers and performers. (This writer was his student at Mills College.) At Harvard he created a unique music analysis/performance class, which had an enormous impact on such budding celebrities as Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Chang, and James Oliver Buswell. A pianist and conductor of rare gifts, he has been guest conductor with major orchestras, and in residence at numerous festivals. He is especially proud of the Harvard Chamber orchestra, which he founded to perform traditional and contemporary repertoire.

Kirchner’s works include the opera Lily, two piano concertos, two cello concertos, three string quartets, Concerto for Violin, Cello, Ten Winds, and Percussion, Music for Orchestra I and II, Music for Flute and Orchestra, a song cycle The Twilight Stood, a monumental cantata Of Things Exactly As They Are, and other orchestral, chamber, and solo works. In recent years he has written a second Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1993), Duo for Violin and Piano (2002), and Piano Sonata (2003). Kirchner has received numerous major commissions and awards, including the 1967 Pulitzer Prize and the 1994 Friedheim Award of the Kennedy Center.

The works on this recording span four decades. Although the composer’s music has gone through a subtle evolution, the basic features of Kirchner’s musical language are apparent from the start. His music tends to the rhapsodic, with impulsive movement from lyric to dramatic, and asymmetrical rhythm and phrasing. Works are conceived as organic wholes. (All the multimovement works on this recording are “played without pause”.) In the earlier music particularly, sectional contrasts are sharp, marked by clear tempo changes; in his later music, the textural continuity becomes more homogeneous, the changes gradual and seamless. The tonal language is chromatic but not serially organized. The composer’s markings in the scores are detailed and sometimes unusual: “Haltingly”, “Wild”, “Coming from nowhere, almost out of control.”

Each movement evolves from a single idea, and typically, these themes are of a probing, questioning character. Like a protagonist in a drama, the idea goes on an epic journey, experiencing a series of contrasting psychological states in its quest for resolution or fulfillment. The journey is turbulent; in stream-of-consciousness mode, we are carried along with propulsive energy until we reach a plateau of calm reflectiveness, but then the energy erupts anew. Despite the forceful linear thrust, the music exists on several levels. Cross-connections are important; an extended passage, or even a single sonority, recalled from an earlier moment triggers the recesses of our memory and builds up a multi-dimensional awareness analogous to our conscious and unconscious mental processes. All this makes a work feel like a large experience even though it may not be particularly long in actual time.

Kirchner’s earliest compositions show the impact of his teachers, as well as the influence of Bartók and Berg. The language, however, is distinctly his own. His earliest published composition, the Duo for Violin and Piano (1947), has an airy, playful tone but, typically, the seemingly lighthearted, scherzando discourse ultimately enters mysterious, transcendent realms.

The Piano Sonata (1948) follows the historic principles of sonata structure with great originality. The first movement sets up a recurring sequence of two qualities of motion: a declamatory theme in broad tempo gradually gathers momentum and restlessly surges to a fast, propulsive section. Each sequence is more developmental and intense. The final section reaches no resolution; a series of bell-like sonorities propels the movement to a last gigantic chord from which emerges new distant bells of the Adagio. Over an obsessive repeated note ostinato (avowedly indebted to ‘Le gibet’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit), melismatic figurations reminiscent of Bartók’s “night music” evolve into a dramatic chant. The third, rondo-like, movement energetically and straightforwardly resolves the work as a whole, pausing to reflect on portions of preceding movements before the decisive ending.

By the time of the Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (1954), Kirchner had abandoned the traditional scheme of distinctly characterized movements in favour of more continuous structures. Here the two movements are interdependent. The first movement evolves in a manner similar to the Piano Sonata, but the fluctuations between the slow, lyric theme, introduced by the cello, and contrasting agitated sections are treated with greater complexity and unpredictability. The movement ends as with a question mark, the piano’s final bell-like chords acting as a bridge between the two movements. The second movement reestablishes the moments of introspective calm from the first movement. The ascending gestures of the restless first movement now yield to a falling, consoling figure. Agitated elements gradually take over, however, and aggressively drive the work to its final powerful resolution.

‘Flutings’ (1973) is a short solo from the opera Lily, based on Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson, The Rain King, and produced by the New York City Opera in 1977. The flute solo begins the opera, evoking an exotic jungle setting. It is also part of a short concert work, Lily, derived from the opera, for soprano and eleven instruments.

Triptych (1986/88) began life in another guise. The first movement, for solo cello, is actually a version of For Solo Violin. Kirchner added two duo movements and the present work was first performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Chang. The introspective first movement develops from the initial sighing, falling motive and its preceding grace note arpeggiation. The yearning character of the motive and its restless tritone harmony calls for a resolution, which is not yet to be fulfilled. The next movements carry the search onward and ultimately provide an answer: the violin’s brash entrance sets up a dynamic response which, with occasional flashbacks to the first movement, culminates in the driving Presto finale, a joyous, dance-like affirmation of breathtaking virtuosity.

Cheryl Seltzer
© 2005 Continuum

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