Though it was issued in 1999, to honor Leon Kirchner's 80th birthday, this CD set is still in print and easily available (including from Music and Arts's website), and it's so superb in every way that it deserves special attention.
Kirchner is not a completely neglected American composer: such artists as Yo Yo Ma and Peter Serkin have played and sometimes commissioned works of his, even into the new millennium. But he surely deserves more recognition than he has received in recent years, and the set at hand is an excellent way for the adventurous listener to make acquaintance.
The recordings date from the days when Columbia Records and its "side" label, Epic, were spectacularly supportive of new music, from near-complete surveys of the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Copland to extensive samplings of others, especially Americans. It's a pleasure to have all these long-out-of-print recordings collected in one place and much more of a pleasure to have such excellent digital transfers. The booklet apologizes for the "excessive tape hiss" in the 1962 recording of the Piano Sonata, but I did not find the background noise intrusive, and the piano sound of Leon Fleisher's fierce, commanding performance is utterly vivid and undistorted. Even the earliest recording (of the First String Quartet, 1952, released in '54) has an exciting immediacy and realism. (Maggi Payne was the remastering engineer.) Moreover, Music and Arts has provided a generous 2 hours and 35 minutes on two CDs. The pieces are arranged in order of composition, which does have one disadvantage: the Finale of the 3-movement Piano Concerto is pushed over to the second CD. (An arrangement by recording dates, from 1952 to 1973, would have given us a rather different order.)
But now to the music itself. Kirchner was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and Roger Sessions (and in turn, a teacher of John Adams, by the way), but I find his music not as dense and difficult as Sessions', and neither as cool and quirky as Schoenberg's 1920s 12-tone compositions or as full of hallucinatory anguish as the Viennese master's more expressionistic works. Kirchner's music is typically non-programmatic and atonal, certainly complex, but also intense, impassioned, though not exhaustingly so. Various music critics quoted in Producer Dorothy Crawford's booklet essay stress how "feeling" always seems to come before "intellectual" considerations in Kirchner's music, though his works are intricately structured too. Crawford points out that the first movement alone of the Piano Trio contains the indications "wild!" "appassionato," "lyrically, tenderly," "powerfully," and (I like this one the best) "coming from nowhere, almost out of control." Three of the works here the Piano Sonata, the Piano Concerto, and the Second String Quartet have the traditional three-movement structures of fast-slow-fast, but listening to each is an adventure, full of surprising turns, not easy to grasp even after a few listenings, but not fatiguing either.
Leon Fleisher is the biggest name among the soloists, and he gives the Piano Sonata a reading one would expect of a great Brahms interpreter. But all of the performers on these discs are extremely accomplished and committed not least Kirchner himself and collectors familiar with Dimitri Mitropoulos' dynamic work with the New York Philharmonic are likely to find him the perfect choice for accompanying the Concerto.
Kirchner experimented with electronic music in the 1960s and 70s, as evidenced by the last two works on the second CD. The Third Quartet uses electronic sounds antiphonally, for the most part: the strings respond to the various twitterings and bleepings with unusual sounds of their own harmonics, sul ponticello, and the like, though not strictly imitative. Toward the end of this one-movement piece there is more combining of live and recorded sounds, though the live strings have the last word. After a few listenings I still find this work more like a collection of "sound effects," loosely organized, than Kirchner's earlier compositions, but evidently this piece is more about sounds than structure. Crawford's booklet essay is rich in biographical detail and quotations from music critics and the composer himself, mostly speaking in general terms; but it's disappointing in that it gives very little musical analysis of any of the works, and in the case of the Third Quartet doesn't even tell us how the electronic sounds were generated.
The final work, Lily, is an extraordinary 22-minute chamber piece which Kirchner created while he was working on his one opera, a kind of multimedia spectacle based on Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King and premiered by the New York City Opera in 1977. Mostly taking place in a fantasy jungle, the piece opens with a long flute solo, interrupted by a percussive outburst which eventually leads to the soprano singing a dreamy love song in an "imaginary language." This in turn leads to another female voice (the composer's wife, Gertrude Kirchner) reverberating on tape, and then to an extended speech again electronically manipulated by the self-aggrandizing and extravagant Henderson, performed theatrically by Kirchner himself. The various wind and string soloists take over with cadenza-like passages accompanied by electronic chirping and dripping sounds. The soprano now reappears as Henderson's wife, Lily, in a passage beginning, "Meet me in my orgone box with a double bourbon on the rocks" (!) with Kirchner at the piano adding touches of a more tonal, early-20th-Century popular style. The "jungle" voice returns with gentle woodwind and percussive sounds. The whole thing may remind the listener of certain vocal works by Schoenberg or even Pierre Boulez. In any case, the piece is haunting and evocative, soprano Diana Hoagland sings her challenging music with disarming lyricism, and the "Columbia Chamber Soloists," a group of all-stars including James Buswell on violin, Paul Dunkel on flute, Richard Stoltzman on clarinet, and Lorin Hollander on celesta, acquit themselves admirably.
Sound: (on average)