It’s good to see a full disc of the expressive music of Douglas Knehans offered for consideration here. Various works have been reviewed previously in Fanfare’s august pages, but this appears to be the first review of a single composer disc. There was one, though: Ablaze 00003, which interestingly featured the first version of Soar for cello and piano. The excellent Jiří Hošek is the soloist on both occasions. Unfortunately I have not been able to hear the previous disc, but the performance here, from both soloist and orchestra, is radiant and multicolored. This is music of tremendous imagination. Knehans scores with a masterly hand, his sound paintbrush unerringly hitting the mark. The piece, in the composer’s words, is “rooted in firm centers around E”; he describes his language as “thorny, expressive” and “florid and exhibitionistic.” The chamber original dates from 2005; this orchestration from 2006.
Hošek’s playing in Soar, for all its faultless virtuosity, is marked by its expressive quality. The direct, involving recording emphasizes all of the positives of Hošek’s playing in a highly challenging score for soloist and orchestra alike. The orchestra under Christopher Lyndon Gee offers pinpoint ensemble and the result is offering Knehan’s piece in what seems to be the best available light. There are some gorgeous lyrical moments around the six-seven minute mark, including a miraculous, held-breath passage for solo flute against a low pedal note.
Knehans describes Drift for oboe and strings as an attempt to suspend time. Here, “drama is not a player and things slowly morph and unfold,” in the composer’s own words. Oboist Vladislav Borovka offers splendid playing, and the Brno recording engineers offer an even better recording, present yet not overly forward. This piece is absolutely beautiful. The shadowings of the oboe theme by the orchestra around the six-minute mark (when some sort of movement seems to seek to creep in) are most effective. There is an element of slowly unfolding endless melody to the oboe’s line.
Written as a commemoration of Knehan’s time spent in Tasmania (2000–2008), … Mist, Memory, Shadow … is another slow-moving piece, and very beautiful; the composer refers to it as “a kind of still elegy.” The title refers to three elements the composer links to Tasmania, the final element being that country’s “incredible natural light” There is a lovely sense of space brought alive by impassioned playing from all, particularly the soloist, Dora Bratchkova. In some ways this is reminiscent of the English Pastoral School (think Butterworth); yet the harmonies glow in a different, perhaps more intense, light and rise to more dissonant climaxes. Bratchkova’s violin at times takes on a burnished quality, and not just in its very lowest reaches, taking on some of the intensity of a high cello. This makes for a remarkably expressive performance.
Finally, the concerto for orchestra Cascade (originally for two pianos, and again this alternative version is available elsewhere, this time on Ablaze 00009 and reviewed in Fanfare 35:5, the present version of the score dates from 2010). There is a very arresting beginning, especially when heard in contrast with preceding two pieces. The orchestral writing is magnificent (and beautifully realized here). Inspired by the idea of piano resonance and how these sounds could be interpreted as “clouds of water and the various forms these take in the natural world,” this idea is reflected in the three movement titles of “Drift Echo,” “Waves,” and “Torrent.” The fierce, feisty opening to “Drift Echo” contrasts with playful, skittering woodwind. At times the music seems to nod towards Janáček (the Sinfonietta). The second movement is truly beautiful and includes some lovely bell-like descending figures leading into its climax. There are, perhaps, hints of the Dies irae, which coupled with the bell references seems to imply some sort of reference to Rachmaninoff. The finale is energetic and serious, and again scored with a light, imaginative touch. All credit to the virtuosity of the Brno Philharmonic and the expert ear of their conductor, Mikel Toms, for delivering such a razor-sharp performance. A fascinating disc.
Fanfare Magazine—Colin Clarke
Douglas KNEHANS (b. 1957)
Soar, Concerto for cello and orchestra No.1 [14:12]
Drift, oboe and strings [10:36]
... Mist, Memory, Shadow..., violin and strings [10:16]
Cascade, Concerto for orchestra [26:03]
Jiří Hošek (cello)
Vladislav Borovka (oboe)
Dora Bratchkova (violin)
Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon Gee (Soar, Mist)
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Mikel Toms (Drift, Cascade)
rec. Slovakia; Brno, Czech Republic further details, including dates not given.
ABLAZE RECORDS AR-00022 [61:07]
American-Australian composer Douglas Knehans has a great facility for melody and these works amply demonstrate that. Soar, his cello concerto started life as a work for cello and piano and was orchestrated in 2006. Remarkably there is little indication while listening that it could ever have existed in another form since it works so well for cello and orchestra. Despite its short length of 14 minutes this single movement concerto not only fully exploits the cello’s many and varied colours but is a highly charged and emotionally rich work that also belies its American origins in that it has a distinctly European sound, at least to my ears. The emotionally dark and disturbed nature is immediately apparent from the very beginning and the powerfully stated argument is maintained throughout leaving a lasting impression on the listener.
Drift for solo oboe and strings is an ocean of calm by contrast and beautifully stated. Knehans explains in the booklet notes that his inspiration in part was a mental picture of clouds against sky dissolving into each other as they move across it and it certainly conjures up such an image. His hope in writing it was that the listener can appreciate this in such a way as to have the impression that time has been suspended and that all that remains “is the beautiful sounds of stillness hanging in the air” and I can concur that that was precisely the impression it had on me.
Clearly his desire to describe the natural world in music is a major motivating factor in his aim as a composer for the next work ...Mist, Memory, Shadow... seeks to articulate his reaction to Tasmania where he was resident for eight years between 2000-2008 and indeed he regards Australia as his second home. He points out in his notes that mist is a key feature in Tasmania, one which cloaks the island in a shroud of mystery along with its majesty. The element of memory comes from his feelings of contemplation heralded by the mists, encouraging him to reflect upon that majesty that is Tasmania’s natural wilderness and how it fits in with past, present and future which is something we should all reflect upon given the impact we humans are continuing to have on the fragility of the Earth and its natural features and resources. The violin emerges as if it is part of the mist rising up into the sky and is a powerful image. It is so heartening that gone are the days when composers fought shy of writing tuneful music and that they recognise that how they say what they want to say can embrace all methods of expression without fear of disapproval. Knehans’ rapturously gorgeous melodies are a delight to listen to.
Cascade –Concerto for Orchestra is an orchestrated version of a work originally written for two pianos and once again it seems a perfectly natural approach for this music that falls into three short movements, Drift echo, Waves and Torrent. There is a relentless energy here in the opening movement, less so in the first half of the second and on my first had me wondering if the titles of the two would not have fitted better reversed so I mentally discounted them and concentrated on the music which once again is extremely satisfying with lots of ideas being thoroughly exploited. Then the music burst out of its more languid mood before once again subsiding and becoming calm once more. The third movement has some more superb writing for strings with expressive themes which are worked through in highly attractive ways and which sweep the listener on towards the concerto’s exciting conclusion. Knehans seems full of ideashis music is never less than totally engaging and I found this disc a marvellous introduction to his musical world as I am sure you will too. It is also very pleasing to hear two less wellknown orchestras, both of which play so brilliantly with each conductor in firm control of these forces while each of the three soloists clearly admire the music and admiration through their committed playing. All in all a fascinating disc of engaging music from another composer whose music needs wider circulation.
MusicWeb International—Steve Arloff