LESHNOFF Violin Concerto. String Quartet No. 1, “Pearl German.” Distant Reflections ● Markand Thakar, cond; Charles Wetherbee (vn); Carpe Diem St Qt;Baltimore Ch O ● NAXOS 8.559398 (56:34)
Those listeners interested in discovering new compositional voices that mbrace traditional musical values will want to know about Jonathan Leshnoff. He was recommended to me by a colleague for just that reason. Now in his late 30s, Leshnoff was born in New Jersey, and teaches at Towson University in Maryland. His music seems to be attracting an increasing number of admirers among performers and listeners. This recording is the result of the combined efforts of such enthusiasts. That is, the Violin Concerto is performed (brilliantly, I might add) by Charles Wetherbee, together with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra (who provide strong participation and support, and with whom Leshnoff is composer-in-residence). Violinist Wetherbee plays first violin in the Carpe Diem String Quartet, who perform beautifully in the other two works.
The Violin Concerto is the most immediately compelling work on the disc, and is said to have been inspired by the Holocaust (which, as usual, seems to result in whiffs of Shostakovich). Composed in 2007, it is a 25-minute work in five movements. Flagrantly and unabashedly tonal and melodic, its conventional and accessible style calls to mind the music of Lowell Liebermann, though it reveals a greater sense of expressive urgency. It is consistently and intensely gripping, with moments of much excitement as well as passages of great beauty. Despite its accessibility, it is neither shallow nor trivial. The demands on the soloist are considerable, as one would expect from a work of this kind. This is a concerto that warrants widespread attention, and one that would make a stunning impact on any concert audience. With so many first-class violin concertos composed during the past hundred years, it is hard to understand why any serious music lover would sit still to hear the hackneyed warhorses of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bruch, et al.—and even harder to understand how violinists can continue to go through the motions, feigning profound feeling, without gagging.
The two other works on the program are less conventional in style and form, though they too warrant attention. Their style might be characterized as “post-modern” rather than “traditional,” due to their emphasis on texture and sonority, while their thematic elements are drawn from a variety of sources, some quite ancient. Composed in 2003, Distant Reflections is scored for violin, piano, and string ensemble, with a string quartet off-stage. This distribution of forces permits a subtle shaping of the resulting elements of sonority into an 11-minute work of haunting, ethereal beauty. Though perhaps not as immediately accessible as the Violin Concerto, it is no less satisfying, as new depths are revealed with each hearing.
Somewhat less compelling is the String Quartet No. 1, “Pearl German.” The subtitle refers to the wife of an important patron of Leshnoff’s. This work was commissioned in 2005, in commemoration of her 80th birthday. It is a “Four Seasons” piece, each movement, beginning with winter, intending some connection with each season respectively. Much of this work commands and rewards attention. However, some passages strike me as overextended, and the expressive balance among the movements seems less than ideal. But most of all, the relationship of the movements to the seasons is quite unconvincing. Nevertheless, though it may be the least impressive of them, all three works are gratifying and together they serve as a promising introduction to the music of this composer. And, as suggested, the performances are superb. I recommend this disc to all listeners on the lookout for new “neo-tonal” composers; and I look forward to hearing more of Leshnoff’s work.