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CD Review

Aaron Jay Kernis

  • Three Flavors **
  • Two Movements (With Bells) *
  • Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s)
Andrew Russo, piano
* James Ehnes, violin
** Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Alan Miller
Naxos American Classics 8.559711 53:52
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Aaron Jay Kernis' piano concerto Three Flavors is cast in three movements and was originally scored for toy piano and orchestra and premiered in 2002. This new version for (grand) piano and orchestra was premiered in 2013. The composer explains in the album notes that the title of the work, Three Flavors, refers to his penchant to avoid eating the same cuisine at restaurants during a given week, preferring to sample different "flavors" of food on each visit. Thus, he has produced a work with three distinctly different movements.

The first, Ostinato, starts off like a page out of a Bartók piano concerto. The mostly lively music here is a little more exotic and jazzy than Bartók, and features a prominent role for percussion. The latter half of the movement turns ethereal with lots of pitter-patter from various metal percussion instruments as the music winds down. The second movement, Lullaby – Barcarolle, offers lovely lyrical music of a mostly dreamy character. Although stylistically dissimilar to Ravel, the music here at times calls to mind the middle movement of the Ravel G major Concerto. That said, there is, once again, an exotic character present that gives the music much color. The appearance of what sounds like an electric guitar (it's listed among the instruments in the score) near the end is quite touching. The finale, Blue Whirl, is gruff and humorous, quite jazzy too and featuring those seemingly ever-present metal percussion instruments. After a somewhat hazy and dark middle section the music returns to its colorful rough-house manner, concluding in a blaze of rhythmic mayhem from piano and percussion. A very inventive work!

Two Movements (with Bells) is a less accessible piece, though it would be a stretch to call it avant-garde in any sense. Scored for piano and violin, the work was written in memory of the composer's late father, Frank Kernis. It opens with a lyrical movement that turns quite intense and mournful in places, and features more than a few hints of jazz and blues. Overall, the mood of the first movement is sad, though there is a sense of restlessness that sometimes borders on anger or at least frustration. The second movement also has its lyrical and intense moments, the piano generally seeming more aggressive, more willing to stir emotions than the violin, a judgment that can also be made about the first movement.

The final work, Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s), is the lightest and jazziest of the three on the disc. At about nine minutes it's also the shortest, and to tell you the truth it often sounds like a cadenza from a concerto, with lots of virtuosic writing and hints at various themes. It is dedicated to Kernis' father but is actually an homage to Gershwin while also tipping its hat to Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Errol Garner. If you like the styles of these gentlemen, you'll find this a tasty dessert.

These are world premiere recordings but I suspect if there were a fair amount of competition in this music on record, these performances would still be the first choice, as both soloists, Andrew Russo and James Ehnes, play with total commitment and an intuitive grasp of Kernis' chameleonic, jazz-tinged style. David Alan Miller draws fine performances from the Albany Symphony Orchestra in the concerto. Naxos provides vivid sound reproduction and the album notes by Kernis are enlightening. Recommended to those with an interest in contemporary music of a mostly accessible bent.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings

Trumpet