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CD Review

Aaron Jay Kernis

  • Three Flavors **
  • Two Movements (With Bells) *
  • Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s)
Andrew Russo, piano
* James Ehnes, violin
** Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Alan Miller
Naxos American Classics 8.559711 53:52
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They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but sometimes those intentions actually translate into something unexpected. Take Aaron Jay Kernis' Three Flavors, for example. Originally for toy piano (you read that right) and orchestra, the balance problems must have made guitar and harp concertos look like a walk in the park. Kernis is far too smart a musician to just let his music rot, and so he gave the solo part to a grand piano instead. In a word, the results are cool. The music is all over the place in the best way possible. There is some jazz, some very lyrical moments (I question the boxes' claim of "French" lyricism) and even some echoes of gamelan music. Everyone from jazz enthusiasts to your neighborhood ethnomusicologist should find something to enjoy.

Indeed, if you've ever wondered what a Ravel work (okay, so maybe it does sound French in spots) would sound like if Gershwin brought himself to the party with some Indonesian gamelan, you've found the right concerto for you. The outer movements are simply delightful in their playfulness and verve, while the inner movement is a beautifully written homage to everyone from masters of jazz to Saint-Saëns. The Albany Symphony Orchestra plays with a real kick, and David Alan Miller creates a snappy and wholly invigorating sound world for Andrew Russo to swing along in. For my money, this is one of the most unusual and rewarding entries I've heard in the American Classics line.

Chamber music fills the rest of the disc, and just as convincingly. While arguably less "fun" than the Three Flavors, Two Movements features some highly inventive writing for violin and piano. James Ehnes has continued to grow as an artist over the years, but he was pretty goo when he started! He's magnificent here, effortlessly navigating the sometimes thorny writing. And Russo is just as convincing as a chamber partner. The quirky Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s) ends the program in yet another style, with the pianist flying solo to bring the title to life. This is a fine disc of first-time recordings, but it's the Three Flavors that will likely leave you hungry for more.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman