The Music of Nimrod Borenstein


BORENSTEIN: Violin Concerto, Op. 60.* The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe. If You Will It, It Is No Dream / *Irmina Trynkos, violinist; Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5209

Nimrod Borenstein (1969 – ) is a violinist-composer who won the Cziffra Foundation award at the age of 15 for his original cadenza to the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3. He attended the Royal College of Music, first as a violinist, but later won the Leverhulme Fellowship for composition. Neither he nor his work are particularly well known, but pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has been championing his works for some time, so here they are on CD at last.

Borenstein, like so many modern composers, is essentially tonal yet one who spices up his scores with counterpoint, surprising chordal shifts and local folk music. There is a strong thread of Jewish folk music running all through his Violin Concerto, despite the biting brass and pounding tympani. The first movement, in particular, is dynamic and driving, using the violin in an integral fashion, much as Berlioz’ Harold in Italy did for the viola. What impressed me the most was that his themes, although tonal, never sound sappy or mundane. Moreover, he knows how to knit them together seamlessly to tell a story, leading the ear from section to section like a master storyteller. His orchestration is colorful, a bit showoffy but never splashy for the sake of cheap effects; rather, he seems to know how to use different sections of the orchestra in a most effective way, never letting one section dominate over the others. At several moments, you’d be hard-pressed to think of his orchestra as containing strings, though when they do return you say to yourself, “Oh yes, he’s got a full string section here.” More often than not, however, he allows the brass and/or winds to dominate, even in the second movement where he has the violas and cellos play pizzicato almost throughout. When the violin section does enter, it is to play a long-note, rhapsodic theme, over which Borenstein overlays more brass.

The third movement has a particularly interesting, long-lined melody, in the course of which Borenstein constantly colors the music with soft percussion (chimes, vibraphone, cymbals) despite its elegiac quality. By such methods, in addition to his keen ear for harmonic resonance and dissonance, Borenstein keeps his music from becoming overly sentimental, something I fully appreciate. At 3:40 into the movement the soloist embarks on a particulary attractive theme, which is then developed using Jewish folk music harmonies. In the fourth and last movement, Borenstein returns to his pounding ways, using edgy, driving rhythms and themes that hold your interest. Here, too, the composer “smears” his harmony in such a way that at times it is tonally ambiguous.

The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe begins quietly, almost pensively, with soft vibes playing before the strings and piccolo enter. A canon is set up in the string section, which becomes quite lively, rhythmic and energetic. This is a big bang with a bit of a swagger! Flutes and clarinets then take up their own canon, backed by chimes, followed in turn by pizzicato strings. Borenstein uses and re-uses the triad of A-C-E as a motif in the first movement as well. A surprisingly lyrical theme then take up in the winds (oboe, clarinets and flutes) against the pizzicato strings. In the second movement, the canons are replaced by a full-blown fugue which goes on for a bit before the texture is reduced to a few cellos playing against the vibes before the upper strings return to play against them. Eventually the counterpoint drifts away, leaving a soft bass drone beneath the vibes soloist with flutes and piccolos up top. The third and last movement is taken at a moderate pace, using many of the same techniques from the first two movements in a lighter and more syncopated manner, sounding almost jazzy as the movement progresses.

If You Will It, It Is No Dream follows in the footsteps of The Big Bang, By now, I came to recognize that although Borenstein has a lot of technical tricks at his disposal, he tends to use them in much the same way in piece after piece. This gives his music a feeling of sameness about it, not necessarily bad but showing that the composer still needs to develop alternate modes of expression. I’ve run across this many times—almost too many times—in the music of many modern composers. They don’t seem to understand how to vary their means of expression. Once they’ve locked themselves into a particular way of writing, they stick with it come heel or high water. What I mean by this is not that their music is bad, ir necessarily repetitive, but too strong a resemblance from piece to piece can be wearing on the listener. (I should also point out that both Mozart and Chopin suffered from this weakness, too, which is why not all of their music is as wonderful as their admirers like to pretend.)

In Borenstein’s case, the repeated tricks are counterpoint and canons, pounding rhythm and syncopated figures with Jewish or Yiddish-style harmonies. No, this third piece doesn’t sound exactly like the preceding work, but it’s a bit too close for comfort. He needs to develop a few different “voices” to make his music sound fresher.

All in all, however, this is a fine introduction to a composer whose music needs to be heard more often. In doing so, he might recognize the repetition and find a means to expand his palette.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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