KERNIS Symphony No. 2. Musica Celestis. Invisible Mosaic III. Symphony No. 1, “Symphony in Waves.” String Quartet No. 1, “Musica Celestis”

KERNIS Symphony No. 2. Musica Celestis. Invisible Mosaic III •Hugh Wolff, cond; City of Birmingham SO • PHOENIX PHCD-160 (55:51)

KERNIS Symphony No. 1, “Symphony in Waves.” String Quartet No. 1, “Musica Celestis”• Gerard Schwarz, cond; NY Chamber Symphony; Lark Quartet • PHOENIX PHCD-165 (71:18)

Along with such other “neo-tonalists” as Paul Moravec and Michael Torke, Aaron Jay Kernis is one of the most prominent American composers of the generation that came of age during the 1980s. Sharing with those figures an unabashed desire to communicate with listeners, he has achieved most of the auspicious distinctions available to an American composer of concert music, and his works are performed widely. His music is notable for its eclecticism, drawing upon a wide range of sources, although it doesn’t have the indiscriminate “kitchen sink” quality of such die-hard eclectics as John Corigliano or William Bolcom. These two recent CDs are reissues of recordings originally released on Argo during the 1990s. The five featured works all appeared during the brief period 1988-91, and are major efforts that helped to launch their composer’s international reputation.

The earliest of the pieces is Invisible Music III. Kernis identifies its source of inspiration in the Byzantine mosaics he viewed while in Ravenna, and his work, composed in 1988, is a plausible analog to that artistic medium, with its glittering, kaleidoscopically-shifting orchestral colors. The 17-minute piece is literally sensational, displaying a tremendously imaginative, rapidly-shifting palette of sonorities, finally working its way to a garish peroration that almost outdoes Respighi at his own game. Its constant activity calls to mind the music of Torke, but Kernis’ language is somewhat less ingratiating, more hard-edged in its impact. My chief reservation about the work is one that often occurs to me when listening to Kernis’s music—that local moments of exciting aural color do not always add up to a coherent statement that is more than the proverbial sum of its parts.

The next piece, which appeared the following year, was Kernis’s Symphony No. 1, “Symphony in Waves.” This lengthy, five-movement work is dedicated to John Adams, who was one of Kernis’s teachers, and it is strongly reminiscent of that composer’s brand of neo-romantic minimalism. The subtitle refers to the wave-like gestures that permeate the symphony (and largely account for the resemblance to Adams). However, I must say that I prefer this work to comparable music by Adams, as it seems to have more substantive activity and a greater variety of expression. Overall, the symphony boasts a wide range of colorful textures and exuberant gestures, conveying a sense of serendipitous fantasy rather than a carefully plotted formal design (although this effect may be the result of careful planning). Especially striking is the slow movement, which suggests a frigid winter scene, but builds to a menacing climax, while the finale conveys an identifiably American (i.e. Copland-like) sense of jubilation. The performance by Gerard Schwarz and the New York Chamber Symphony of this notably difficult work is generally quite good, although the orchestra seems to founder somewhat in the fourth movement.

Kernis completed his String Quartet No. 1, “Musica Celestis” in 1990, and this consistently compelling work is heard here in a stunning performance by the Lark Quartet, for whom it was written. The first of its four movements presents some of the composer’s most traditional-styled music; the opening could almost be a hypothetical “Second String Quartet” by Ravel, although it soon wanders far afield. The second movement is the source of the work’s subtitle, and the composer cites as an influence the music of Hildegard of Bingen. It is introspective in a way that suggests spiritual concerns, while maintaining a consistently elegiac tone. A brief scherzo featuring much use of pizzicato and tremolo serves as something of a skittish palate-cleanser, before the ostentatiously eclectic, almost Stravinskian finale. This is a rhythmically exciting movement that ends the work in high spirits.

Following a longstanding tradition among American composers, Kernis subsequently extracted the slow movement from the First Quartet, and expanded the scoring to full string orchestra. As such Musica Celestis has become the composer’s most popular and most widely-performed composition. In this guise, the opening unavoidably suggests the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, while other composers—Hovhaness, Copland, Panufnik—are soon called to mind as well. Of course the most obvious parallel is Barber’s Adagio for Strings, although Kernis’s Musica doesn’t actually resemble it except in concept. But even if one is tempted to patronize it as “a Barber Adagio for the 1990s,” it is not difficult to understand the popularity of such accessible, heartfelt music. 

The latest composition to be discussed here is the Symphony No. 2, dating from 1991. Apparently Kernis was moved to compose this work—in three movements entitled, “Alarm,” “Air/Ground,” and “Barricade”—by the first Persian Gulf War. The program notes describe it as an “anger symphony,” and point to such precedents as John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 and some of the works of Bernstein (perhaps most obviously his Symphony No. 3). To my ears, however, the precedent is found in the “wartime symphonies” of Shostakovich and other such works from the early 1940s. 

Unlike the earlier symphony, No. 2 can be characterized as more or less “pure” neo-romanticism, though of the tragic variety. The first movement is the most overtly bellicose, capturing something of the aggressiveness and brutality of much Eastern-European music from the second half of the 20th century. The second movement develops a somber lyricism into passages of remarkable beauty. The finale returns to the pugnacity of the opening, exploring some brilliant sonorities and achieving stunning effects. The performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Wolff, is excellent.

In summary, these two CDs provide excellent representations of some of the most impressive works from early in Kernis’s career, while offering persuasive evidence of an authentically communicative creative voice.