In the latest addition to its Fresh! series of Stereo and Multichannel DSD 256 recordings from Sound Mirror, Reference Recordings proudly presents two new works from leading American composer Jonathan Leshnoff. These world premiere recordings showcase the Kansas City Symphony performing his third symphony, inspired by World War I letters home, with texts sung by baritone Stephen Powell. It is coupled with Leshnoff ’s new and exciting piano concerto, dedicated to and performed by pianist Joyce Yang.
Distinguished by The New York Times as “a leader of contemporary American lyricism,” Leshnoff is renowned for his music’s striking harmonies, structural complexity, and powerful themes.
The Kansas City Symphony has a vision to transform hearts, minds, and its community through the power of symphonic music. Founded in 1982, the Symphony has established itself as a major force in the cultural life of the community. Praised for performances of uncompromising standard, the orchestra is the largest in the region and holds a national reputation under the artistic leadership of Music Director Michael Stern.
Kansas City Symphony
Michael Stern – Music Director
Joyce Yang – Piano
Stephen Powell – Baritone
Total time: 01:00:18
Pyramix, Merging Technologies
Marcia Gordon Martin
|Original Recording Format|
Dirk Sobotka, Soundmirror
Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts Kansas City, Missouri
|Release Date||November 19, 2020|
Classical Voice North America
On a new Reference Recordings album, Michael Stern leads the orchestra in the world premiere recordings of both Leshnoff’s Third Symphony and his Piano Concerto. The symphony was recorded a week after its premiere in May 2016; the concerto was recorded at its concert premiere in November 2019. Both works were commissioned by the orchestra (the concerto was a co-commission with the Tucson, Harrisburg, and Knoxville symphony orchestras).
The long-lined legato strings that open the symphony immediately bring to mind works like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings with its tonal modulations and harmonically resolved suspended chords. It is meditative mood music. The winds, including a contrabassoon, briefly create an unusual, dark balance. French horns, trombones, winds doubling the strings, and timpani swell the poignancy, climaxing with what sounds like long, chime-like strips of hanging metal, like broken church bells, one left, one right, that terminate the crescendo. The movement resolves as it began. What a powerful display of Stern’s grasp of form and the superb strings and winds he has shaped during his 15 years as music director. (He says he’ll be leaving in 2023.)
Stephen Powell’s finely modulated but focused baritone opens the last movement with the first letter, a poetic narrative written to the soldier’s mother. Powell beautifully shapes extended vowels so that they move the line forward. The text blends seamlessly with the second soldier’s letter to his wife, full of longing to be with her. The orchestra’s encompassing intensity in both letters heightens the yearning.
Leshnoff collaborated with soloist Joyce Yang as an adviser when writing his Piano Concerto. In it she serves up a dazzling array of expression and tone colors. The piano’s tone is full from treble to bass; balance with the orchestra is ideal. Again, the music is traditionally tonal. Underneath it all, the orchestra provides vital forward motion. Once again, the strings are excellent.
In the short Scherzo, Yang gives exciting pulse to the melodies and arpeggios with her perfect rhythmic weight and brilliant colors. What saves the Finale from yet more repeated patterns is Leshnoff’s colorful piano writing, which Yang makes infectious, as Stern’s vital rhythms stir the cauldron, and the orchestra and pianist switch roles from leader to accompanist.
The engineering is rich, embracing, detailed, and balanced. Superb liner notes by Leshnoff, the baritone’s full texts, pertinent background, artists’ information, technical details, and excellent photos add up to a first-class presentation.
Earlier this year I reviewed a stunning release of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony from Reference Recordings that also included the World Premiere recording of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon, a work that in my review I described as ‘a meticulously crafted and instantly accessible piece’ Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4, Leshnoff: Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon – Honeck.
Subsequent auditions of this Concerto have increased my admiration for Leshnoff’s composition, so I am delighted that the label have now released a further album of Leshnoff’s music – his Piano Concerto and Symphony No. 3 – both of which are also World Premiere recordings.
Leshnoff’s Piano Concerto came to fruition because of a 2017 meeting in Baltimore with the pianist Joyce Yang who was rehearsing Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto in preparation for a performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Leshnoff and Yang collaborated on plans for a new concerto which was completed in November 2019 and dedicated to Joyce Yang.
The opening of the work’s four movements presents a majestic (and attractively memorable) theme that is developed with increasing energy and dazzling pianism by soloist and orchestra in the manner of a grand romantic concerto before reaching a humorously abrupt ending. The slow movement entitled “Neshama,” Hebrew for “breathing soul”, is the spiritual heart of the concerto in which a hauntingly beautiful melody unfolds over a cushion of soft strings. The final two movements are a brief witty scherzo and a lively energetic finale, both of which allow many opportunities for the brilliant Joyce Yang to display her virtuosity, which she does with tremendous panache, while Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony provide marvelously alert support.
Like the Piano Concerto Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 3 was a commission by the Kansas City Symphony, this time to commemorate the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917 and it is a powerful and gripping piece cast in three movements. The first two are purely orchestral while in the consoling finale the composer sets extracts from soldiers’ letters home during the conflict that he chose from the archives of the National World War I Museum and Memorial museum in Kansas City. The wonderful poignancy of the string’s cantilena at the start of the piece gradually darkens as the movement proceeds and builds to a dramatic climax whose power is intensified by strokes played on two anvils placed on opposite sides of the stage. The second movement “Gevurah”, meaning ‘strength’, is marked ‘with burning intensity’ and the composer tells us that it is his depiction of war and battles. In this exciting section the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony relish to the full the opportunities given to them by Leshnoff’s imaginative orchestration. The reflective finale, marked ‘Calm’, follows without a pause and it would be impossible to over praise Stephen Powell’s singing of the texts. Powell is possessed of a superbly resonant and firm baritone voice that he uses with great sensitivity to communicate the pathos of the words.
Music as fastidiously composed as this warrants a recording of the highest quality and certainly receives it from the Soundmirror team of Dirk Sobotka and Mark Donahue. They have captured with unerring skill both the fine acoustic ambience of the Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the superb playing of the Kansas City Symphony. Though the recording dates were May 20-22, 2016 for the symphony and November 22-24, 2019 for the concerto, the three year time difference has made no discernible difference to the excellence of the sound on this 5.0 Channel DSD release. Balance between piano and orchestra in the concerto does slightly tend to favor the former though not to the detriment of orchestral detail and this is also the case with Stephen Powell’s splendid vocal contribution in the Symphony’s final movement.
In a recent interview Leshnoff is quoted as saying “My motivation is twofold for my music. First, I want to take listeners on a journey. If I don’t take listeners somewhere, I haven’t done my job as a composer. Second, I want to integrate authentic Jewish spirituality into music and combine the two. Those, I feel, are my life mission.”
Few would doubt, on the evidence provided by this wonderful recording, that he has succeeded in both these aims and I recommend it unreservedly.
5 Star Rating for Performance, Surround Sound Sonics and Stereo Sonics.
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