About this Recording
8.573987 - KERTSMAN, M.: Concertos / Chamber Symphony No. 2, "New York of 50 Doors" (Piccinini, Korcsolán, Kuuskmann, London Philharmonic, D.R. Davies)

Miguel Kertsman (b. 1965)
Three Concertos • Chamber Symphony No. 2 ‘New York of 50 Doors’


Brazilian-born Miguel Kertsman has enjoyed an international career as a composer, keyboardist, producer, audio engineer and music executive. His music, not easily categorised, shows influences from all over the world. He has worked in numerous genres and formats, including the concert stage, jazz, progressive rock, electronica, film and game scoring. The four works on this disc—including three concertos performed by the soloists for whom they were written—bridge diverse elements that, in Kertsman’s hands, result in genre-bending music for the concert stage with a unique sound and wide appeal.

Kertsman composed his Concerto Brasileiro for Flute, Strings and Percussion on commission from the Austrian Flute Society and soloist Marina Piccinini in 2005. The opening movement, Overture, Bagunça, begins with a splash of colour and proceeds along a rather modernistic path with string glissandi and extended techniques for the soloist. But this frenetic activity cuts off abruptly at the end of the 18th bar. Strings begin a solemn, chorale-like passage that introduces a sense of tonality until cadencing on an ambiguous harmony, at which point flute and percussion try to bring back the modernistic, deconstructed vibe. But the strings return to their chorale—this time with a lyrical melody on flute riding above them. Eventually, these competing forces of lyricism and modernity coalesce into a seductive dance, capped by a cadenza-like coda from the soloist.

The second movement, Choro (a reworking of an earlier piece written c. 1990), opens with an extended duet for flute and cello, their sinuous lines interacting with and complementing each other. Kertsman adds percussive colour from a pandeiro (a Brazilian hand drum similar to a tambourine) before strings introduce a more solemn idea, soon joined by the flute. The third movement, Repentes, Baião, Xaxado con brio, commences attacca and launches into an infectiously rhythmic dance. Kertsman composed the lyrical, modal Repente theme for a Concerto for Strings when he was only 19 and, having a special fondness for it, has repurposed it in other works as well. As the composer explains, ‘A repente is a form of folk music from northeastern Brazil, where the city of Recife is located. Repentistas would walk along the streets and beaches, each with a local type of guitar called a viola sertaneja and singing improvised verses about anyone or anything … they are fantastic artists! Another variant of those street musicians, the emboladores, would do the same, but instead of accompanying themselves with violas sertanejas, they would do so with a pandeiro.’ The composer recreates this childhood memory of music he would hear ‘as I was enjoying being a kid and drinking a nice glass of cold maté tea blended with lime, apple or milk at a restaurant nearby.’ Throughout the movement—although more stately passages provide contrast—irresistible rhythmic propulsion is the order of the day.

The Concerto for Violin, Horn, Shofar and Orchestra announces its propensity for uncommon sonorities at the outset—a trio consisting of solo violin, shofar and bass clarinet, supported by splashes of percussion. The shofar—part of Jewish tradition—is an ancient instrument, originally made from a ram’s horn, that Kertsman believes ‘can give a sense of transcendence’. It resembles a berrante, played by cattle rangers in the hinterlands of Brazil, thus demonstrating the commonality in widely divergent folk traditions. Because embouchure alone controls its pitch, its tuning can be very distinctive. In Kertsman’s Concerto, the soloist alternates three shofars (tuned to three different basic pitches: B flat 3, B flat 4 and B 4) with a modern French horn. The brief first movement revels in these sounds, along with metallic sonorities of bowed percussion, clusters of string harmonics, and an introspective melodic episode followed by a coda. The second movement features much imitative counterpoint between violin and horn, juxtaposing a playful idea in duple-compound metre with a solemn five-note motif.

The shofar returns in the third movement, in which seconds (both minor and major) form the backbone of the melodic material. Sonority again seems paramount, with ethereal soundscapes, the percussion playing a more active role, and a haunting solo violin theme navigating within. The concluding movement, by far the longest of the four (and mostly scored in 11/4), brings a new melodic theme together with elements from each of the preceding—both horn and shofar, stepwise motion, triplet figures, the five-note motif, much interplay between soloists, extended percussion (including two Brazilian berimbaus)—to which the composer adds, nearly half-way through, a rhythmic bass line reinforced by organ, culminating with majestic thematic statements in the Concerto’s closing bars.

Kertsman, who composed the work in 2013, has noted: ‘There isn’t any specific meaning or intent with the piece, other than its musical message itself, going beyond labels, borders or divisions. Music, as time and space themselves, is universal and can help … bring people together.’ He has also observed, ‘The solo parts require both extreme virtuosity and warm, lyrical sounds, and Orsi (Orsolya) Korcsolán and Gergely Sugar bring the music to life just wonderfully.’

Kertsman titled his bassoon concerto Journey for Bassoon and Orchestra, reflecting some of the paths he and his long-time friend Martin Kuuskmann have travelled, both musically and geographically. He began writing the piece in 2012, developing it from a piece for bassoon and piano he and Kuuskmann had premiered at the Blaine Music Festival in 2010. The outer movements are named after the cities of their births (Tallinn for Kuuskmann, and Recife for Kertsman); the central panel on the map, New York, has been a centre of activity (one of many) for the composer. More importantly, the many styles evident in the work reflect Kertsman’s wide-ranging musical interests, encompassing traditionalism and experimentation with equal fervour. The work is scored for solo bassoon, strings, piano, celesta, organ and percussion (including a Brazilian cuíca in the third movement).

The opening movement unfolds slowly, beginning with a lyrical line for the soloist that is gradually joined by tutti strings and solo violin. Kertsman says the music was written in Chicago, ‘looking at Lake Michigan’s vastness from my apartment window’—a landscape that gave him the feeling of Nordic lands. The music builds to a forceful climax, at which point the soloist returns to the opening idea, this time accompanied by piano and celesta. The organ intervenes to create a quasi religioso passage rife with suspensions; against increasingly turbulent strings, the soloist tries to re-establish his opening phrase. Finally spent, strings and organ yield to the soloist and he returns to the beginning, repeating the first 15 bars of the movement (although this time without celesta).

What follows is the first of two short interludes that feature the bassoon soloist exploring some of the instrument’s extended techniques: multiphonics, voice-singing, pure air and key clicks.

At Kuuskmann’s request, Kertsman developed the New York movement from one of his jazz works, The Band, written in 1989 for his New York-based progressive jazz ensemble, the Amazonica Universal Orchestra. The soloist plays a series of laid-back licks in dialogue with xylophone, accompanied by a rhythm section consisting of piano, drum set and bass. After a brief reference to the first movement’s theme from the soloist, jazz returns with a more frenzied vibe. Strings introduce a steady chromatic idea that fails to disrupt the party, until, finally, they take over with a solemn chorale and the soloist returns yet again to the opening idea of the first movement.

Rhythm is the predominant force in the final movement. Over a steady ostinato for snare and bass drums (initiated by the soloist with air and key clicks at the end of the second interlude), strings begin an extended fugato. This leads to a lively dance tune from the soloist, in the style of a frevo—a traditional Brazilian dance, originating in Recife, that is said to make listeners and dancers feel as if they are boiling on the ground. The music reaches a shattering climax with slithering chromatics before the soloist returns to the work’s opening theme, which is eventually picked up by the strings as well. Although the movement was composed in Vienna, the composer says the movement is ‘reminiscent of my childhood in that beautiful city where the world and the city itself somehow seemed to be nothing but sunny and happy.’

Kertsman’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 presents a vivid and colourful portrait of the city that never sleeps.

The Vienna Symphony Chamber Orchestra (and its conductor, Gergely Sugar, who is also the horn soloist on this recording) commissioned the work in 2014 and premiered it in 2015. Because they requested a ‘jazzy piece’, Kertsman repurposed two main themes and the episodic modulations, representing different sounds and cultures present in NYC, from an earlier work, New York of 50 Doors. And because the orchestra would be performing John Adams’ Chamber Symphony on the same concert, they asked him to use the same orchestration: four woodwind players (flute doubling piccolo, oboe, clarinet doubling bass clarinet, bassoon doubling contrabassoon), three brass players (French horn, trumpet and trombone), synthesizer, percussion (greatly expanded in the Kertsman work) and solo strings. The synthesizer (which stands in for a lead synth sound, a Hammond B3 organ and a Clavinet) takes the lead in introducing the main motif—a descending four-note chromatic phrase followed by a flurry of semiquavers that leads to some impressive virtuosity from trumpet and French horn later in the piece. Some form or other of this idea permeates much of the musical discourse, as does a feeling of jazz, most especially in the sophisticated rhythms of the percussion section. Melodic intervals are routinely narrow; Kertsman avoids expressive leaps, suggesting a city with an incredibly rich cultural diversity that is busy and complex, active and focused.

Also notable throughout is the unusual interplay of instrumental colours, starting at the beginning with piccolo and contrabassoon. Kertsman makes every tonal strand stand out in the texture. Doubling is rare; nothing is wasted.

Kertsman’s work in studio keyboard playing, producing, audio engineering and acoustics took up a large part of his time in the first two decades of his career. But since 2008 he has been able to fully focus again on composition. ‘I have always been a composer first’, he says, and his passion and enthusiasm for musical creation is evident not only in his words but in the works recorded here as well.

Frank K. DeWald

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