KERNIS: Double Concerto for Violin and Guitar. Air for Violin. Lament
and Prayer for violin.
Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Musicone of the few times that committee has gotten it right in recent years. While his expertise brooks no challenge, most young composers in this century possess technical resources in abundance, some of them in super-abundance. Kernis has the advantage, however, of intense, often lyrical, stylistically diversified Feeling to communicate in his music (without being a scattershot eclectic). The best of it can move the listener with an eloquence almost Mahlerian in expressive scope and seriousness, although he can be funny, satiric, impish with the best of them (a la Prokofiev or Shostakovich).
Argo has adopted him and we are the richer for their investment, although the featured Concerto on this newest disk is a hybrid that gives less pleasure than the woodshedding necessary to master it. I annotated a New York Chamber Symphony performance a couple of seasons ago, with Gerard Schwarz conducting and guitarist Sharon Isbin (who commissioned it) and Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg as soloists. I supplemented study of the score with an air-check by Hugh Wolff and his Saint Paulists, who gave the premiere without having solved the work’s fiendish difficulties. Here they have completed the job as perfectly as a shotgun wedding of violin and guitar allows. Cho-Liang Lin is a steadier, more reliable violinist than Nadia the Contortionist (to her own great disadvantage), although a certain intrusive element in Ms. Isbin’s playing continues to give disquiet. Perhaps it is the music---skittish, self-consciously artful, almost manic in its cleverness, with a finale jazzily contrived, though passages in the slow movement do take flight.
However, both the Air written for impeccable Joshua Bell, and Lament and Prayer for hard-trying Pamela Frank give us the rhapsodic Kernis who is a treasure. Can any other living composer, irrespective of age, spin a lyrical line more persuasively than he, and build on it till we are reduced to near tears? David Zinman, leading a major-league orchestra that has known him as its summer music director, is movingly supportive.
Argo’s ongoing recordings of Kernis’ music amount to a documentation as valuable as three centuries of music publishing by Peters, Schott u. S–hne, and Universal in this century. If 30 minutes on this latest disc sound more contrived than credibly expressive, the remaining 38-plus are outpourings of a raptus as rare as it is exalted.