KERNIS Dreamsongs – Three Concertos
Honoured and widely performed in the US, Aaron Jay Kernis’s music has struggled to register a similar impact beyond its shores. Gramophone’s 2017 label of the year, Signum Classics, is doing its part to redress the imbalance: ‘Dreamsongs’ follows on from the same label’s brilliantly quirky and imaginative 2011 release, ‘Goblin Market’ (5/11).
In fact, there’s a strong European slant to Kernis’s music. His three-movement Viola Concerto brings together a Yiddish song (‘Tumbalalaika’) with Schumann’s Fughetta from his Op 32 set of four piano pieces, while the Concerto with Echoes draws on Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg Concerto. Echoes of the past are voiced through quotation or allusion and weave together a narrative that often takes personal reflection and experience as its starting point.
A different kind of buried memory flows through the two-movement cello concerto Dreamsongs, one that shifts uneasily between fantasy and reality. A delicate, songlike melody emerges from the solo cello’s opening line like a butterfly from a chrysalis. The second movement, ‘Kora Song’, sees the cello imitate the West African instrument through the use of a plectrum at various points to pluck notes and strum chords. The style is more direct and dancelike but, as is often the case with Kernis, an underlying restlessness lurks beneath the music’s calm exterior and soon enough the music descends into a darker, more dramatic and disturbing sonic landscape.
Both concertos are highly virtuoso. The efficacy of the Viola Concerto is certainly aided by an excellent performance by longtime Kernis exponent Paul Neubauer. Joshua Roman’s outstanding performance of the cello concerto is the disc’s highlight, however. In the cadenza section, heard towards the end of the concerto, intricate passagework demands rapid alternation between arco and left-hand pizzicato, culminating (according to the composer’s directions in the score) in a Jimi Hendrix-style ‘freakout’. Roman’s extraordinary performance combines the expressive control of Casals with the creative individuality and virtuoso flair of Hendrix himself.