Louis Karchin’s Dark Mountains/Distant Lights

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KARCHIN: Dreamscape.1,3 Rhapsody.1,2 Three Epigrams.2 Dark Mountains/Distant Lights.1 Lyrics II.2 Prayer.1 Reflection1,3 / 1Miranda Cuckson, vln; 2Steven Beck, pno; 3Jacqueline Leclair, ob / New Focus Recordings FCR225

American composer Louis Karchin has written more than 90 pieces, appeared as conductor with several ensembles, and co-founded new music groups including the Chamber Players of the League-ISCM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, the Washington Square Ensemble, and the Harvard Group for New Music. This CD spotlights his chamber music, most of it featuring young violinist Miranda Cuckson and some of it pianist Steven Beck.

Dreamscape opens with the oboe playing long-held notes over violin tremolos, then slowly moves into faster, somewhat edgier themes with a bitonal base. The music shifts tempi and moods back and forth, weaving a strange tapestry through the mind. Upper harmonics are used as thematic and development material and the music jumps around skittishly with frequent long pauses, yet always with some definite form behind it.

The Rhapsody for violin and piano also contains a skittish restlessness behind it; in terms of mood, it is, to my ears, much more like an active night of bad fairies than a rhapsody in the strict sense of the term, with dark-sounding piano chords leading the edgy, nervous-sounding violin, but good music nonetheless. When the piano gets his own solo, some of the edginess is mellowed, leading to soft, spaced-out chords, which also temporarily tames the violin. Then the tempo increases again, the violin plays rapid, serrated figures, and the harmony finally comes together in a tonal manner, though no less edgy and unsettled in mood before returning to bitonality. This frenetic “rhapsody” thus moves towards its conclusion, finally resolving itself once again in Eb major.

The Three Epigrams for piano solo also skitter around, but the first, at least, does not stray too far from tonality. By this point it was obvious to me that Karchin’s style, though interesting, is based on the use of devices common to all of his music. This is not to say that he’s not an interesting composer, only that his basic material has a certain sameness—not an uncommon thing for many modern composers. The second Epigram followed the pattern of the slow piano music in the Rhapsody, for instance, albeit with some variations, while the third returns to his skittish, somewhat disconnected style of writing. In Karchin’s sound world, music is comprised of discrete rhythmic fragments that he makes coherent via a good sense of structure, but the pattern tends to repeat itself.

Indeed, Dark Mountains/Distant Lights sounds like a variant on Dreamscape, only here played by a solo violin without the oboe. Mind you, hearing one or two of these pieces in a concert would certainly be interesting and invigorating; the music is clearly well-thought-out and inventive in places; but repeated patterns are repeated patterns, no matter how ingeniously they are constructed. Nonetheless, Karchin’s craggy construction is indeed fascinating in these relatively small-scale works, where he is able to control their evolution and occasional juxtaposition of ideas.

In Lyrics II his method of writing slow, moody piano chords comes again to the fore, and once more one hears music that, isolated from the other pieces on this set, would clearly intrigue listeners in a modern music concert. The difference here is that, in the second piece, he has the pianist thump on his instrument.

Prayer for solo violin is more lyrical than usual for Karchin, using a broad, rather slow melodic line written in his usual bitonal fashion. Cuckson plays this with particularly good phrasing and feeling, and to a certain extent this work slightly breaks the mold of the others. So, too, does Reflection, with which this recital ends. This work is primarily tonal and, in places, quite lovely in the modern sense, meaning emotion without sentimentality. Yet Karchin again gives the violinist widely-spaced intervals to play, albeit in slower tempi, and the interplay of violin and oboe is quite interesting, sometimes giving the lyric line to the reed instrument while the violin flutters above.

An interesting album, then, with some very fine pieces in it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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