Leshnoff: Violin Concerto no. 1, String Quartet no. 1 / Wetherbee, Carpe Diem Quartet

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Leshnoff might compose his music for anyone who wants to listen, but it seems to me that the inattentive listener will be cheated out of most of its pleasures. Indeed, it wasn’t until I sat down and really listened to this CD on my home stereo that I realized how fine this music is. It asks the listener to devote time and attention to it; there’s no pandering here, but I think it still is accessible to anyone who is sufficiently open-minded enough to enjoy Hindemith, Bartók, or late Stravinsky, for example. (Surely that’s not too much to ask!)

The Violin Concerto could well be a significant addition to the instrument’s repertoire. Five movements are indicated, but because there is no pause between the first and second movements, and none between the fourth and fifth, and also because there is a tempo change in the fourth, the work’s structure is more complicated than the CD’s track listing indicates. The concerto opens with a figure not unlike Westminster chimes, and because it reappears several times throughout the concerto, it serves as a kind of guidepost. The opening Allegro drives forward with purpose, and is serious but not grim. There is much to interest the ears, not least in the orchestration, which is consistently imaginative. The solo writing is idiomatic, as if Leshnoff composed it for himself. At 7:57, the second movement (Slow) is the concerto’s longest, and it is here that we are introduced to Leshnoff’s more lyrical side. Again, orchestral colors are deployed with an artist’s sensitivity, and the musical argument is well considered and involving, with an emotional intensity suggesting that the composer, in spite of his age, is something of an old soul. If Samuel Barber had lived longer, he might have written music not unlike this. The central Scherzo lightens the mood—for a time—without disturbing the concerto’s emotional trajectory. Prokofiev comes to mind. Leshnoff uses the orchestra masterfully, avoiding both cliché and novelty for novelty’s sake. The fourth movement (Slow–Fast) returns to the mood of the second, but it is more unsettled, and soon becomes agitated. A crisis is reached, and then resolved—but only partly—in the closing Elegy, which again is reminiscent of Barber. The music stops before one expects it to, giving the concerto an open-ended feeling. Although he didn’t write a programmatic work, one of Leshnoff’s inspirations was a story told by a Holocaust survivor. During forced labor, SS guards would make prisoners sing Nazi propaganda songs, but the prisoners would insert their prayers into these songs. In light of this story, one can better understand why the concerto ends as it does.

Distant Reflections is scored for solo violin, piano, and strings, with an offstage string quartet. This might be thought of as Leshnoff’s response to Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia , except here Leshnoff uses fragments from a Mass by Ockeghem. As in the concerto (but without sounding like it), a very refined ear is at work (in terms of both color and form), and Distant Reflections is at once sensual and serious. Without talking down to listeners or gimmickry, Leshnoff indeed has succeeded in writing new music that could appeal to many.

Pearl German is the wife of Jeremiah German, “a college professor with an abiding love of music,” according to Naxos’s booklet notes. The String Quartet No. 1 was a commission in honor of German’s wife, on the occasion of her 80th birthday. The four movements, beginning with “Winter,” are named after the four seasons. Again, this is not a programmatic work—there are no Vivaldian stamping feet or barking dogs. Instead, Leshnoff seems to be aiming at a more metaphysical reflection on the cycles of life. Ending the work with “Autumn” allows Leshnoff yet another downbeat ending, which he seems to like and does well. In terms of both timbre and emotions, this quartet is refined, eschewing that which is obvious or easy. As in the other two works, his writing is concise; Leshnoff is not a composer who goes on talking after he has nothing more to say.

These performances, all supervised by the composer, make an excellent case for the music. Wetherbee is a first-class violinist, whether he is a soloist or within the very able Carpe Diem String Quartet, whose other members are Wendy Morton, Korine Fujiwara, and Robert Firdman. The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, founded in the 1980s, plays with polish under the direction of Markand Thakar, and with evident appreciation for Leshnoff’s ideas. There are some weird and annoying sonic artifacts, only noticeable during pauses and very quiet sections in the recording of the String Quartet; it sounds as if another ensemble were playing in a studio two doors down. Otherwise, Naxos’s recording is excellent.

Labels like to push their hot new composers, and after a while, one gets skeptical over this or that so-called discovery. Leshnoff, however, is excitingly “the real thing,” and I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more from and about him in years to come.

-- Fanfare

Product Description:

  • Release Date: February 24, 2009

  • Catalog Number: 8559398

  • UPC: 636943939826

  • Label: Naxos

  • Period: Contemporary

  • Composer: Jonathan Leshnoff

  • Conductor: Markand Thakar

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Carpe Diem String Quartet

  • Performer: Charles Wetherbee