Karchin winds 9586

Louis Karchin (b. 1951)
Sonata-Fantasia, for piano (2020)
Quintet for Winds (2021)
Three Images, for piano (2020)
Summer Song, for clarinet (1994/2020)
A Jersey Reverie on New York Notes, for piano (2018)
Processions, for organ (2007/2021)
Stephen Drury, Michael Stephen Brown, Han Chen (piano), Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet), Carson Cooman (organ)
rec. 2021-23, Drew University, Madison; Mount Vernon; Harvard University, USA
Bridge Records 9586 [67]

Louis Karchin seems to be less well known in the UK than he ought to be; that at least is the implication of my experience when mentioning his name to people who generally have a good awareness of contemporary music. Assuming that this very limited ‘survey’ points to a reality, I will offer a little by way of background, before addressing this new disc.

Born in Philadelphia, Karchin pursued his undergraduate musical studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester (NY), before obtaining his Masters and Ph.D. at Harvard. His teachers included, at various times, Joseph Schwantner, Leon Kirchner, Earl Kim, Fred Lehrdahl, Gunther Schuller and Bruno Maderna. He also studied conducting with Leon Barzin and Boris Goldovsky.

Though I knew the name previously, it was a 2021 review by Dominy Clements which encouraged me to look out for music by Karchin. There are many of his works which I have yet to hear, but those I have heard and admired include the opera Jane Eyre (2015), Orpheus (2003) described by the composer as “A Masque for baritone voice, dancers and Chamber Ensemble”, the Chamber Symphony (2009), which is discussed in Dominy Clements’ review, and several chamber music works such as the Trio for violin, cello and piano (2019) and his Second String Quartet (1995). He is also a fine writer of songs, as evidenced by works such as his Three Songs on Poems of Emily Dickinson (2020), Songs of John Keats (19840 and Two Sacred Songs (2018), with texts by George Herbert – Karchin’s taste in poetry is clearly impeccable!

Since I have probably heard no more than a third of all the music that Karchin has written it is probably unwise of me to generalise, but I will risk the observation that he seems to me a composer who values matters of vocal and instrumental colour as much as questions of musical form and structure. So, for example, in his notes on the Quintet for Winds in the booklet accompanying this disc he writes “I had long envisioned writing a wind quintet; the bright sound of the five instruments playing together seemed particularly inviting. The first movement seeks to exploit this timbral quality to create a sense of ebullience. The second movement is darker and more experimental, as clarinet multiphonics […] influence the harmonies”.

This new disc is made up of some of the music Karchin wrote between 2020 and 2022, i.e. against the background of the Covid pandemic, along with some works written earlier but revised during this period. The Quintet for Winds mentioned above was written for Windscape “the virtuoso faculty wind quintet of the Manhattan School of Music”, as Karchin describes it. The quintet is made up of Tara Helen O’Connor (flute), Randall Ellis (oboe), Alan R. Kay (clarinet), David Jolley (French horn) and Frank Morelli (bassoon). I very much had the feeling that the group had fun when playing this new Quintet, happily embracing its often unexpected juxtapositions and textures. Its four movements (‘Con spirito’, ‘Maestoso’, ‘Scherzando’ and ‘Prestissimo’) all offer the listener distinctive pleasures, whether that be the experimental sounds in the second movement, the ‘majesty’ of which is unconventional but real, with some striking moments of grandeur and solemnity; or the virtuosic excitement of the closing ‘Prestissimo’ which, at its close, briefly remembers the opening two movements. In his notes on the piece, Karchin writes “The motivating figure behind my Quintet for Winds was clarinettist Alan Kay”. I hope that Mr. Kay will be able to persuade the composer to write more for this ensemble.

Also included on this ‘pandemic’ album is Summer Song, a piece for solo clarinet, which was composed for Marianne Gythfeldt, who gave the premiere at a concert by Ensemble 21 at Carnegie Hall in 1996. Louis Karchin revised the work in 2021 “By the time I revised [Summer Song], I knew Marianne’s playing well, as we had collaborated on several other projects in the interim” (Karchin). The piece opens with a lively theme, full of positive feelings. As played here by Gythfeldt it sounds almost like a fanfare. This ‘fanfare’ theme reappears on three later occasions in Summer Song, separating a passage which has something of the march about it from a more lyrical section and then again, between this subdued lyricism and a passage that is considerably more extrovert and bright, this being followed by a final appearance of the ‘fanfare’ theme, bringing the work to a close. Throughout, Marianne Gythfeldt’s playing is technically impressive and richly expressive. After my first hearing I chose to replay this work several times, my fascination and pleasure growing with each playing.

Four other solo works complete the disc: three for piano, each of them played by a different pianist, and one for organ. The powerful Sonata-Fantasia which opens the disc is played by Stephen Drury. In his booklet notes, Karchin writes of his long-standing friendship with Drury, “dating back to 1971, when Steve was a high-school student attending Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute and I was a Fellow in Composition at the Tanglewood Music Center just down the road. Steve discovered Tanglewood’s composition seminars, and eager to learn more about new music, became a steadfast participant”. The single movement Sonata-Fantasia (though four distinct sections are discernible) is not, as its name implies, the strictest of sonatas. The composer’s comments on it in the accompanying booklet are worthy of quotation: “In creating the piece, I envisioned a substantial work, and this influenced the interconnectedness of the work’s four sections”. It opens assertively with some heavy chords, before a lively allegro, with some ascending arpeggios and insistent tremolos, which Stephen Drury plays with impressive authority. Later, in the slower third section he plays with thoughtfully absorbed inwardness, before relishing the positive concluding section. An interesting and powerful work played here with insight and authority.

The second of the three works for solo piano is Three Images, played persuasively by Michael Stephen Brown. This is in three short movements (4:22, 5:06 and 3:08) entitled Festivals, Labyrinths and Carousel. These titles (plus that of the overall work) invite us to hear these as programmatic pieces. Yet it is worth knowing that, according to what Louis Karchin says in his booklet note on Three Images, these programmatic titles were something of an afterthought: “The idea of assigning descriptive titles to the movements occurred to me as I composed the last one, Carousel. I heard in my mind a single-line melody that would not “let go”; and as I worked out variations that gathered momentum, the image of a merry-go-round gradually accelerating over the course of its ride came to mind. Working backwards, the second movement, Labyrinths, took its title from melodies of its mid-section that leisurely and circuitously wander upwards. Festivals, the first movement, has much in common with the upbeat character of the opening movement of the Quintet for Winds, its liveliness projected through a spiky first theme and resonant passage-work”. On the whole, I find these after-the-event titles more of distraction than an illumination of the music. I can hear the merry-go-round in Carousel, but the other two movements seem to me to be most rewarding if listened to as absolute music, rather than in terms of such programmatic titles. As such, there are more than enough twists and turns and interesting musical juxtapositions to keep me thoroughly engaged.

Where the last of the solo piano pieces is concerned, A Jersey Reverie on New York Notes, played by Han Chen, I found the composer’s booklet note useful when pointed to an important feature of the work which I would not have identified if left entirely to my own devices. Karchin says this of the work: “It was written as an 80th birthday tribute to composer Charles Wuorinen and takes, as its starting point, the first seven notes of the third movement of one of Charles’ most highly acclaimed works, New York Notes. These are introduced with lightning speed in Charles’ score, but I slowed them down considerably to begin the Reverie. There is one additional quote from the third movement of Charles’ work: a theme played on solo timpani is embedded early on in the Reverie in stately descending bass octaves that increase in intensity”. Armed with this information, I sought out a performance of Wuorinen’s New York Notes, finding one (with score) on YouTube. After listening a few times to this interesting piece by Wuorinen, I was able to savour the intertextual relationship between New York Notes and Louis Karchin’s Reverie thereon. This knowledge added an extra dimension to my pleasure in this attractive and well-made piece by Karchin, though it probably isn’t essential. Reverie, even without knowledge of this allusive relationship has a distinctive charm in its quietly lyrical manner. Like so much of Karchin’s music it is complex yet eminently accessible.

The final work on this rewarding disc is Processions, for organ. According to the information on Professor Karchin’s website this is one of his only two works for organ – the other being his Hymns from the Dark (on poems of Dietrich Bonhoefer), written in 2007, the same year in which Processions was originally written – it is played here in a revision made in 2021. Processions was commissioned by the organist and composer Carson Cooman, who has premiered works by numerous contemporary composers (such as Michael Finnissy, Jennifer Higdon and Howard Skempton) many of them written specially for Cooman. The revised version was recorded in Harvard University’s Memorial Church, Karchin tells us, “just as the university fully reopened after the worst phase of the Covid crisis”. It begins with a solemnity appropriate to the circumstances, followed by some short, undeveloped phrases, which gradually fuse into longer statements – perhaps emblematic of the kinds or rebuilding required after the pandemic. Out of the growing complexity there emerges something one might reasonably describe as a chorale – Karchin calls it “a chorale-like theme”, but I think this description is unnecessarily modest. The later stages (the piece is only a little more than seven minutes in length) build to a majestic (maestoso) climax. This impressive work will surely outlast its occasion and continue to be played for many years.

I have seen Karchin described as “one of the few who has managed a compromise between the avant-garde of the 1960s and 70s and the neo-romanticism of the current era (Jack Sullivan, American Record Guide, 69:4, July-August, 2006) which seems to make him sound like a composer who doesn’t know his own identity. To be fair, however, the same reviewer goes on, rather inconsistently, to say that his music “project[s] a strong, confident personality”, a comment I am happier to agree with.

As an academic, conductor and composer, Karchin has a thorough familiarity with many areas of contemporary music, having worked with composers and performers who employ a range of idioms. In his own music he seems to me to be utterly true to himself, rather than to any fashionable idioms. In all his music, at least all of it that I have heard, there is a seriousness of mind to which he remains true.

This disc, in consistently good sound despite the variety of venues, should interest both those like me who already value Karchin’s music and those who haven’t yet encountered it, but are willing to engage with the work of a learned composer who doesn’t allow his sophistication to get in the way of his music being accessible to all whose ears and minds are not entirely closed to ‘modern’ music. There is nothing here to be frightened of and much to enjoy.

Glyn Pursglove

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