"... this music is exquisite and deserves to be heard. Dark Mountains presents premiere recordings of seven chamber works written by Karchin between 2004 and 2017, in stunning sound and in brilliant performances by Jacqueline Leclair (oboe), Miranda Cuckson (violin) and Steven Beck (piano). Reading his liner notes is also worth the price of admission as he eloquently describes the two ends of his process, from being inspired by poetry or other artworks to collaborating closely with musicians to realize the sounds he's hearing in his head. And now that he's put these alternately tart and rhapsodic pieces out into the world, they are available to inspire others."
In the liner note to Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, an album of seven new and recent compositions of his, Louis Karchin describes one of the pieces as having been inspired by lyric poetry’s capacity to convey the moods and emotional states of an individual sensibility. In fact many of the other works in the collection are lyrical not only in the sense Karchin describes, but also in the original sense of something meant to be sung. This should come as no surprise, given the substantial amount of vocal music, including the opera Jane Eyre, that Karchin has written.
The point of departure for Karchin’s musical vocabulary is the pitch-oriented serial and post-serial composition of the last century. His lines tend toward the complex and highly chromatic, and are characterized by sudden turns and staggering leaps and falls. This is the case for Rhapsody (2005/2011), a work for violin and piano that features a tonally convoluted, register-spanning violin line. Nevertheless, the line has a continuity and phrasing that recall the human voice, and it isn’t hard to imagine it as an aria for soprano. It’s a virtuoso piece breathtakingly played by violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Steven Beck.
In addition to her affecting performance on the austerely beautiful Prayer (2004) for solo violin, Cuckson has two duets with oboist Jacqueline Leclair: 2016’s Dreamscape, and 2017’s Reflections. Both are challenging works that integrate extended techniques—multiphonics for oboe, unorthodox bowings for violin— with more conventionally played, though still demanding, passages. Karchin’s decision to pair oboe and violin, whose timbres contrast in the lower registers but tend to converge in the upper registers, is inspired.
Lyrics II (2014)—the piece Karchin was referring to in the liner note—is a two-part composition for solo piano that does indeed evoke the dynamic arc of emotional cycles.
There is something of a consensus from Fanfare reviewers that Louis Karchin is something of an unrecognized jewel of a composer, and I am happy to add my voice to the chorus. We are in distinctly Modernist territory here (Karchin’s teachers include Fred Lerdahl, Gunther Schuller, and Bruno Maderna); and yet, it is Karchin’s ear that stops this from being objectivist and forbidding. Take the very first sonority of Dreamscape (2016) for oboe and violin, a melding of high oboe with a violin tremolo between written pitch and the harmonic two octaves and a fifth above. It is otherworldly, and clearly challenging for the performers; it is a measure of Jacqueline Leclair and Miranda Cuckson’s control over their instruments that the sound field is so convincingly conjured. There is playfulness here, too, in amongst the quarter-tones and the multiphonics. The work is a response to Mallarmé’s poem ‘Apparition’ (a love poem), and there is no doubting that Karchin explores the two instrument’s relationship while, towards the end, inserting a barcarolle, acknowledging the place of the work’s premiere (Venice).
“Dating from over a decade earlier (2005), the Rhapsody for Violin and Piano plays with our perceptions of tonality, placing a passage that clearly references tonal structures at the work’s center (with a recollection at the close that brings the piece to rest). Again, there is a playful element to this music, with instruments chasing each other like over-dissonanced kittens; but there is real beauty, too. Credit should go especially to Miranda Cuckson’s expressive and consistently accurate playing.
“It is good to hear Steven Beck solo in the Three Epigrams (2008), the first movement of which, “Celebration,” was originally a stand-alone piece for Charles Wuorinen’s 70th birthday; the second and third movements reference Luigi Nono and the visual artist Emilo Vedova (who himself collaborated with Nono). The second movement’s title, “Expressions,” echoes Nono’s Due Espressioni and is an exercise in sonic beauty, Beck offers up a crystalline sound; the elusive finale, “Upheavals,” with its contrasting gestures of granite and air inspired by Vedova’s paintings, is similarly convincing.
“In the lineage of Roger Sessions’s Sonata for Solo Violin and Donald Martino’s Fantasy-Variations is Karchin’s Dark Mountains/Distant Lights (2016). Inspired by the Watchung Mountains near the composer’s home in New Jersey, the piece plays with perceptions of near and far; Karchin even illustrates in music how images fleetingly appear, only to disappear again. This is a transfixing performance from Cuckson.
“By the time we get to Lyrics II, the ear has become accustomed to the expressivity of Karchin’s writing, both on vertical and horizontal axes. There are two sections to the piece, the first formed of elongated, restful lines, the second decidedly more agitated (if stopping short of traumatized). The two shorter pieces the close the disc work well together, and also reintroduce the oboe’s voice in Reflection, thus bookending the disc with this instrument. First, though, there come Prayer for solo violin of 2004, written at the time for a festival whose subject was world peace (including for its venue, South Korea). The solo lines seem to invite meditation—reflection on our actions as a human race, perhaps. Talking of reflection, the oboe and violin piece named Reflection (2017) begins with a tremolo gesture that links back to the opening of Dreamscape. The sheer resonance between Leclair (on this outing one of the finest, most musical of oboists around) and Cuckson is remarkable.
“Detailed booklet notes by the composer himself round off a splendid release. In terms of recording, everything is perfectly judged, including perspective. I’m going to balance the symmetry of the disc’s program with a symmetry of my own in this review and remark, once more, that Louis Karchin’s talent clearly requires wider acknowledgement.