Reviews

“Revelations” is an apt title for this important recording of diverse works — piano pieces, songs, choral works, most of them little known — by the American master composer Leon Kirchner, who died at 90 in 2009. Kirchner’s music draws elements from his teacher Schoenberg, his mentor Stravinsky, and other 20th-century modernists, fashioned into his own rigorous, expressive voice. From Kirchner’s early Little Suite for piano (1949) to his last piece, “The Forbidden” (2006), in its version as the Piano Sonata No. 3, the music is alluring, pungent and intelligent, especially in these fine performances, most of them featuring the impressive pianist Joel Fan.”

-Anthony Tommasini/New York Times
http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/classical-playlist-zuill-bailey-natasha-paremski-leon-kirchner-and-more/

An Intimate Portrait- Revelations is an interesting overview of Kirchner’s music. It ranges from some of his earliest work as a student in 1943, up through 2006, three years before his death. It’s also an intimate overview,  comprising of works for solo piano and piano plus voice compositions.

The opening and closing piano works — Little Suite (1949) and The Forbidden (2006) frame the collection nicely. The Little Suite is charming in its simplicity and straight-forward themes. The Forbidden, though more complex, flows with the same easy motion as the Suite.

Dawn, while tonally based, avoids all the cliches of choral writing. This brief work has a sense of urgency to it that effectively conveys the meaning of the text. Words from Wordsworth, written 20 years after in  1966 is much more strident and edgy in tone. This isn’t an academic exercise in dissonance. Kirchner illuminates the text with his carefully constructed harmonies.

Three Songs (1946) and The Twilight Stood (1982) are the most angular and atonal of the selections. Once again, the music is there to serve the text. Kirchner brings the emotions of the words vividly to life.

Pianist Joel Fan, who performs on all but one of selections, is an admirable interpreter of this music. His sympathetic readings bring its emotional content to the fore.

- Off Topic’d
http://the-unmutual.blogspot.com/2013/03/leon-kirchner-revelations-intimate.html

Leon Kirchner passed away in 2009. He spent a lifetime composing works in his own style, modernist, chromatic-rubato-expressive yet abstracted in rhythmic time. Many like myself probably still have a copy of his Third String Quartet on an old Columbia LP, if you go back that far in your listening-accumulating. The work won him the Pulitzer Prize and it is very worth hearing. But perhaps like with me his other work is not as well-known to you. For that we have the remedy of an anthology of some choice chamber and vocal works on the CD Revelations (Verdant World 002).

It has a nicely chosen cross-section of solo piano works, songs, and choral works spanning the years 1943-2006. There is quite understandably development and stylistic enrichment to be heard in Kirchner’s music over time. Nonetheless the charm and expressively miniature qualities of the 1949 “Little Suite” for piano has as much to offer your ears as the later 2006 “The Forbidden,” again for piano. Time and tide had altered his musical vision somewhat, but there was something strong there from the beginning. The choral works haunt, the songs are difficult to sing, challenging, with post-Schoenbergian leaps and great demands placed on the artistry of the soprano.

In the end we have a judicious survey of some choice small works that piques the interest, heightens appreciation of Kirchner the man and the composer, and satisfies the modern-seeking musical consciousness. Performances are very good, as is sound quality. Recommended!

-Greg Applegate/Gapplegate Music Review
http://classicalmodernmusic.blogspot.com/2013/07/leon-kirchner-revelations.html

Anyone drawn to Friday night’s Fromm Foundation anniversary concert featuring the Concerto for violin, cello, 10 winds and percussion by Leon Kirchner may also be interested to know that “Revelations”, a CD of works by Kirchner, has been released by Verdant World Records. “Verdant world” is presumably from the well-known quote of Kirchner’s: “an artist must create a personal cosmos, a verdant world in continuity with tradition.” Kirchner, who died in 2009, is noted for both his uncompromising musical vocabulary and for his passion and intensity. Pianist Jonathan Biss, in comments made at a 2010 appreciation of Kirchner, called him “powerful” and “authoritative”, the music filled with “conflict” and “turmoil” and the messiness of contradiction and complexity. The works on this disc offer a view into Kirchner’s own “cosmos”, though the selections make it more of a sampler than a thorough overview.

The pieces were written over more than six decades, from 1943 to 2006. They emphasize vocal and choral works, many of which have not been previously recorded. When writing for singers, the young Kirchner was drawn to challenging poetry, with mixed results. “Dawn” (1943-1946), for choir and piano, sets a rather lurid poem of Lorca’s (“Sometimes, the coins in furious angry swarms/Sting, pierce, devour abandoned children”) to music that seems almost reticent, almost decorative, in comparison. “Three Songs” (1943-1946) for soprano and piano sets three very different poems: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Times Are Nightfall” resists clear setting (“Work which to see scarce so much begun/Makes welcome death”), though Kirchner captures the romantic melancholy embedded in the poem, and closes with a touching cadence which would sound out of place in his later music. “A Letter to My Wife” by Sidney Alexander, written in 1938, depicts a love shadowed over by the fear of impending war, filled with drum-roll rumbles and implied fanfares, but never overwhelmed; Whitman’s “The Runner” is a simple, four-line, almost prosaic description of a man running, captured in less than a minute of tone-painting. These early works, though perhaps a little slight, wear their romanticism more on their sleeve than do the later works, and provide a more accessible insight into the emotions of the composer that helps to unlock the more daunting later pieces. Diana Hoagland sings persuasively with careful attention to the texts, finding reserves of warmth even in the knottier phrases.

The other very early piece is the Little Suite (1949) for solo piano, whose five movements are over in less than five minutes. They comprise a genre with precious few other pieces – modern works intended for non-professional performers. Of the many accusations made about the inaccessibility of modern music, one of the more damning is that much of it is not playable by any but the most highly trained musicians. Kirchner in this suite speaks the same language as in his other pieces from this period, but does so briefly and without complication: a brief contrapuntal Prelude is followed by a Song that starts out quite conventionally then wanders slightly afield; then there is a rhythmic and spiky Toccata, a melodramatic and noisy Fantasy, and a shadowy and hypnotic Epilogue. This is music that is charming without being sentimental, simple without being simplistic.

With the choral Words from Wordsworth (1966) we are two decades further along and in a quite different sound world. The texts are brief fragments from The Tables Turned and Intimations of Immortality, broken apart and distributed among the voices – the gestures are now more concentrated, even percussive, with brief swoops of something like Sprechstimme; the piece is over in less than three minutes. The Twilight Stood (1982) for soprano and piano goes even further in its setting of six poems by Emily Dickinson. The soprano frequently is pushed to the extremes of her range; the piano is restless, often bursting out in torrents of notes; at other times, moving nervously behind the long lines of the singer. The texts are occasionally difficult to follow, but Kirchner at this point in his life is a more acute interpreter of the emotions moving in the text.

The disc is filled out with the brief (47 second) “A Moment for Roger”, dedicated to Roger Sessions; and to The Forbidden, a solo sonata for piano from 2006. It takes its name from the catalog of forbidden elements (such as diminished sevenths) cataloged by the devil in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Kirchner employed those elements here (and in both a string quartet and orchestral piece by the same name) to prove their usefulness when deployed in an original manner. The result is a propulsive and quicksilver piece which I found the most engaging of the recording.

The performers all show an intimate and idiomatic way with the music. In the case of The Twilight Stood, this is perhaps less remarkable as it is a live recording from 1982 featuring Kirchner himself on piano and soprano Beverly Hoch.  The other pieces feature pianist Joel Fan as soloist and accompanist, who plays this music with clarity, eloquence, and occasional intelligent violence in The Forbidden; and Scott Dunn leads the excellent choir assembled for the recording in Dawn and Words from Wordsworth.

- Brian Schuth/the Boston Musical Intelligencer
http://classical-scene.com/2013/04/10/fromm/ 

American composer Leon Kirchner was born on January 24, 1919 and died at the age of 90 on September 17, 2009. Kirchner’s name currently brings up 56 hits on Amazon.com, a rather modest number…this recording, entitled Revelations, is available for download from ClassicsOnline, where the total number of available recordings of his work is even more modest.

This is rather a change from my student days, when there were more adventurous record producers taking an interest in Kirchner’s work. I was an announcer at the MIT campus radio station, and our library had several of these recordings. I may have been one of the few to broadcast them. However, they were available and tended to be consistently fascinating, at least for those interested more in serious listening than in mere background ambience…for many, Revelations is likely to be a “first contact” experience with Kirchner’s music, rather than “revelations” of previously known aspects of his work. Either way, the recording has much to offer. The primary artist is pianist Joel Fan, and he performs solo compositions that cover the period from 1949 to 2006. Over this span of six decades the listener encounters a progression from the miniatures of the Little Suite in five movements, all of which are shorter than a minute and 30 seconds, to the more extended “The Forbidden,” which is slightly longer than nine minutes. This latter work is a reflection on Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, whose devil character dismisses the constructs of music of the past as “forbidden” when he strikes his bargain with the fictitious composer Adrian Leverkühn.

The remaining selections are vocal. Fan accompanies soprano Diana Hoagland in three songs (each based on a text by a different author) composed between 1943 and 1946. (Leon Kirchner)… accompanies soprano Beverly Hoch in the 1962 The Twilight Stood, a cycle of six poems by Emily Dickinson. (Joel Fan)… accompanies a choir assembled by Scott Dunn in “Dawn.” Composed between 1943 and 1946, this is a setting of a poem by Federico García Lorca translated into English by Rolf Humphries. The choir also gives an a cappella performance of the 1966 “Words from Wordsworth,” which uses fragments from that poet’s “The Tables Turned” and “Intimations of Immortality.”

There is considerable diversity in Kirchner’s approach to vocal resources. The earlier works reflect the sort of rhetorical tropes that occupied many American composers in the Forties. The Dickinson settings, on the other hand, are far more distinctive, placing virtuoso demands on the soprano to tap into the intense emotional undercurrents of the poet’s words.

Whether or not this recording is revelatory will probably depend on how much background knowledge is brought to the listening experiences. Those unfamiliar with Kirchner’s work will certainly be struck by that aforementioned diversity. However, because each of these compositions works on a relatively brief scale of duration, each of the stages of that diversity is remarkably accessible. This may be because, even when he was not explicitly setting text, Kirchner had a sense of literary discourse through which his music would get beyond the more “mathematical” abstractions that composers like Anton Webern inspired in Kirchner’s contemporaries.This music definitely deserves the attention of serious listeners…

- Stephen Smoliar/Examiner.Com
http://www.examiner.com/article/a-revelatory-new-release-of-the-music-of-leon-kirchner

“The first three pieces are from his early composing life as a graduate student. His initial teacher Arnold Schoenberg and reflect the influence of the Second Viennese School, yet Kirchner is not counted as being a member.  Nor do the works on this CD, while defiantly not tonal and stylistically similar to the works of the Second Viennese School, ever enter into the 12-tone technique. After the initial three, the selections are from each decade from the ’60s to 2006 (the ‘90s are skipped).

Among the mainly vocal works selected there are three piano solos included,    I will take the solo piano works out of order and will  cover them together even though they are separated by more than twenty years each.  The piano works are far more atonal than the choral works and show a high degree of technical demand.  Little suite written for his wife and is one of his earlier works on the disk. One could call it a miniature suite; five very short movements three of the five are between 25 and 40 seconds, the long movements are a minute and a minute-and-a-half.  With the exception of “Song” the other movement are very chromatic. A Moment for Roger is literally that: 47 seconds. The Rodger being referenced is Robert Sessions who was a mentor of Kirchner and was writing as part of homage to Sessions.  The Forbidden was commissioned and is dedicated to pianist on this disk, Joel Fan.  While still very modern-sounding in its tonality there is a flair that is invoked, much like one hears when listening to the virtuosic piano composers.  It is a very dynamic and engaging piece; I found it to be my favorite of the solo piano pieces.

The first vocal piece on the disk is Dawn, a setting for chorus and piano.   It is named after the poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca. In Lorca’s work he is describing the dawn in New York City. In it he portraits the city in a very harsh light; It is a romantic-less, and cold.  Still in this work Kirchner uses a more tonal sound while writing for the chorus and saving the more chromatic passage and technical writing for the piano interludes.  The “Three Songs” are for soprano and piano are based on three poems.    For the most part they are more atonal and closer in character to the piano works than for the choir, yet they are not as extreme as the concluding vocal work The Twilight Stood. Gerard Manly Hopkins’ “The Times Are Nightfall” a poem about the writer’s finding an inner sanctum to help against the external feelings of apathy and despair.  Fittingly most of the music is very atonal until the last line which embraces the tonality as the writer embraces their inner strength.  Sidney Alexander’s “A Letter to My Wife”, Kirchner shortens the title to just “Letter”, about “…love in time of war and social upheaval”.   Again following the mood of the poem the music self is atonal, however unlike the earlier song where there is an arrival at an inner solution (expressed with tonality) the ending of this work is ambiguous.  “The Runner” is by Walt Whitman, and at first reading and listening to is quite straight-forward: a description of a man running, with the music is fittingly rhythmic and moves along at a brisk pace.

In Words from Wordsworth we find Kirchner using, very effectively, Sprechstimme—a singing-speaking technique that can be very jarring to ears not accustom to it.  Loosely translated it is “speak singing”, Schoenberg has been quoted explaining Sprechstimme as once the written pitch has been sung the singer “…immediately abandons it by falling or rising. The goal is certainly not at all a realistic natural speech.”  The choral writing is much more compacted and denser than his earlier work Dawn and in this work there is no piano used. The Twilight Stood is a song cycle written with no breaks between the individual songs, the piano provides transitions between them.  This turns the work to the longest single track on the CD.  This work reminds me a bit when I first heard Alan Berg, fitting as they both studied with the same teacher, with extreme ranges and jumps for both the singer and piano.

This is a well-thought-out CD, a sampling of works that span the career of both a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and educator in some of America’s most noted music schools.   One of the very interesting things I found on hearing the CD, was while there is a marked difference between some of his works, there is something very consistent with his style; there is a direct link from his early piano work in 1949 that can be heard in the latest piano work writing in 2006, almost 60 years apart.

Darren Robinson/Audiophile Audition
http://audaud.com/2014/01/leon-kirchner-revelations-little-suite-dawn-three-songs-words-from-wordsworth-a-moment-for-roger-the-twilight-stood-the-forbidden-soloists-leon-kirchner-joel-fan-piano/