International Record Review, March 2011
IRR OUTSTANDING RECORDING
Aaron Jay Kernis, born in Philadelphia in 1960, is tremendously successful, and has already won both the Grawemayer Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He studied with composers as diverse as John Adams, Charles Wuorinen and Jacob Druckman. Kernis is a processor of myriad influences into something personal and highly colourful, as Goblin Market proves extraordinarily well. It’s a setting for narrator and ensemble of Christina Rossetti’s remarkable and ambiguous multi-layered poem from 1859.
In my experience, works which include a narrator frequently fail either because the narrator does not know how to communicate or because the composer has not provided suitable dramatic opportunity for such communication to take place. Neither is the case here: Kernis knows that the only way for a setting of this poem to work is to make it overtly dramatic, the ensemble illustrating, shadowing and underlining the words, creating atmosphere, and the narrator’s part is thus precisely notated. This would be as nothing, of course, if Mary King were not such a superb narrator. She reads the text for what it is, a dramatic poem, enjoying every nuance of darkness and danger, and changing speed and inflexion with precision and facility.
It’s difficult to describe Kernis’s music precisely because it is so multicoloured. He has the kind of ear for texture and colour that his teachers Adams and Druckman have, but his melodic style is frequently wide-ranging and angular (often quite Bergian, indeed) and he enjoys plundering reminiscences of jazz, or Ravel, or both, with some Stravinsky for good measure, in order to create atmospheres that are nevertheless entirely his own. He is also not afraid of using instrumental effects and melodic tags to identify characters: the Leitmotif, in other words. I have already praised King; I must do the same for The New Professionals, who not only accept the manifold challenges presented by Kernis’s score but clearly enjoy them enormously, and Rebecca Miller’s incisive direction. This should be heard, and Kernis should write an opera.
Enthusiasm for Goblin Market should not blind one to the high-octane romp that is Invisible Mosaic, a dazzling, mercurial essay in orchestral texture and colour. It’s quite a diffuse work, and technically challenging, but there’s not a moment that’s not ear-catching. As with Goblin Market, it presents evidence of huge enjoyment on the part of its performers.
Aaron Jay Kernis’s music has been reviewed a few times in recent years on Musicweb International, as more of it finds its way onto CD. It has never failed to impress the reviewer.
This latest release consists of two of Kernis’s older works. Invisible Mosaic II is the lesser piece, though through no fault of its own. It is scored for 17 players, but several more instruments – the two percussionists are called on to play an array of instruments. Kernis was inspired by late-Roman mosaics in Italian churches to analogously construct a vivid sonic picture using musical fragments. The result is a bustling, noisy maelstrom of a work – not lovely in the way a Roman mosaic is, by any stretch, but a memorable exploration of colour and texture nevertheless. Kernis has, not surprisingly, also written an Invisible Mosaic I, for four instruments, and an Invisible Mosaic III, for full orchestra.
The more recent Goblin Market is a setting of Christina Rossetti’s notorious poem, written in 1859, telling the story of two sisters and their encounters with goblin men and their "forbidden fruit". At a deeper level the poem may or may not be about proto-feminism, the nascent advertising industry, or feminine sexuality. Whatever one’s interpretation, there is no question that some of the imagery still has the power to shock today; Rossetti’s poetry is evocative, provocative and erotic, and it is no wonder that the Victorian public were aghast at such barely-concealed titillation.
Commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Goblin Market is scored for a preferably female narrator, five woodwind, four strings, horn, trumpet, piano and two multi-instrument percussionists.
With these forces, through his masterly manipulation of orchestral colouring, rhythm, leitmotif etc, Kernis magnificently realises a perfect union of music and poetry, from Part II, Scene 2, "Laughed every goblin when they spied her peeping", a truly awesome, epicurean crescendo of sensual poetry and orgiastic sounds – surely one of the most spellbinding passages in all music – right down to the deliberately cheesy exuberance of the final scene, "She cried ‘Laura’, up the garden" and the Epilogue.
The CD booklet is first-class, with detailed notes, biographies and the full text of Rossetti’s poem. Some background hiss and hum is evident in the quieter passages of music, as is the occasional rumble of distant traffic, but overall the recording is generally excellent – all instrumentalists can be individually picked out. The New Professionals and their conductor Rebecca Miller sound very comfortable in this often forbidding music.
Mary King’s voice in Goblin Market sometimes seems too close and a shade too loud, and initially her characterisation of the goblins seems absurdly non- malevolent, almost comical. But King was chosen for the London world première in 1995, and she becomes more and more convincing as the story unfolds. And what a story! Intoxicating, outrageous, unforgettable: it is no exaggeration to say that Goblin Market is one of the great musical works of art for theatre of the 20th century.
Gramophone, June 2011
Just turned 51, Aaron Jay Kernis is now well established among the middle generation of American composers, though his music has enjoyed only an intermittent profile on this side of the Atlantic. That may be to do with a finely calibrated fusing of neo-expressionist and post-minimalist traits which is effective if scarcely innovative, though this is not to deny the impact of a work such as Goblin Market (1995). Christina Rossetti’s poem is notable for psychological, sexual and narcotic implication that could scarcely have been more overt in mid-Victorian Britain, and Kernis has responded by making it a recitation in which the narrator – the eloquent Mary King – is heard in the context of an ensemble as varied as it is immediate. Occasionally, the ease by which the music moves between chromatic intricacy and diatonic lucidity gives it a somewhat generalised feel in which the high-points of Lizzie’s and Laura’s tribulations are not brought out as they might be, but this is not to deny its potency in conveying the often lurid symbolism of Rossetti’s tale. Scored for not dissimilar forces, Invisible Mosaic II (1988) is a study in motivic elaboration of a subtlety and resourcefulness not always found in Kernis’s larger works. It helps that The New Professionals are so attentive to its beguiling sonorities and exacting rhythms, out of which a cohesion arises because of the musical content and not in spite of it. Well-balanced sound as well as detailed annotations add to the attractions of this worthwhile release.
Goblin Market, a melodrama – a spoken narration with musical accompaniment – is a superb example of Aaron Jay Kernis’ gift for almost recklessly profligate inventiveness. Christina Rossetti’s mysterious, very long 1859 poem "Goblin Market" (it’s over 550 lines) is notable for its vividly pictorial, sensual (and sometimes unambiguously sexual) imagery. The story of two little Victorian girls, sisters, and their nearly fatal misadventures with a band of goblins, comes across as very strange indeed to modern sensibilities, but it opened the floodgates of Kernis’ imagination. Although the work is endlessly intriguing it leaves an ambiguous impression on first hearing because there is simply so much going on. The music dazzles with its brilliant orchestration and torrents of fascinating, often gorgeous, musical ideas and it sounds like it could stand on its own as a concert work without the narration. The poetry is so rich and its language is just distant enough that listening to it closely tends to draw attention away from the music. It’s rare, though, to encounter any artwork that delivers too much of a good thing, so while it would be possible to be put off by its profusion of musical and literary stimuli, this is a piece that demands many repeated listenings before it can be grasped and appreciated. It is certainly a work whose richness and depth amply reward the attention it requires. The 20-minute Invisible Mosaic II doesn’t have a program, but it has the same kind of propulsive kaleidoscope of colorful invention as Goblin Market, but it has more moments of respite that unfold at a more leisurely pace. Both scores reveal Kernis as (and this is intended in the most positive way) a born entertainer, someone who understands how a well-told story – in these cases a musical story – can quicken the audience’s pulse and leave it with a satisfyingly emotional sense of catharsis.
The London-based large chamber ensemble (or small chamber orchestra) the New Professionals lives up to its name. It plays with remarkable virtuosity and sizzle under Rebecca Miller, the group’s founder. Actor Mary King makes a strong, compelling impression as the narrator. Signum’s sound is exemplary: clean, nicely detailed, and very present.