KERNIS:  Colored Field (Concerto for cello and orchestra).  Pandora Dance.  Hymns and Tablets.  Musica Celestis.  Air.
Truis Mork, cellist/Minnesota Orch/Eiji Oue, cond.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 45464 (F) (DDD) TT:   64:41

All of the works on this musically searing, searching disc were previously recorded by Argo, but two of them have been revised by the composer for cellist Truls Mork: the 39'13" title piece, Colored Field, and Air. The first and longer work was commissioned originally by the San Francisco Symphony for English hornist Julie Ann Giacobassi, who introduced and recorded it in 1994 with Alasdair Neale conducting. Aaron Jay Kernis wrote Air in 1995 for violinist Joshua Bell, who recorded it with David Zinman and the same Minnesota Orchestra on this new disc. His revisions amount to more than just transcribing the solo part downward, although performing times have not been altered (the Argo performance is marginally slower in all three movements, for a total of 41'). In the case of Air, the orchestration has been lightened to accommodate the cello's throatier projection vis-a-vis the violin, and in the process somewhat changed the work's character.

The original is airier, more benign if you will, but the melodic middle section has greater emotional pull on the cello. Both versions, in my estimation, are essential listening, but then I consider Kernis (b. 1960) the outstanding American composer of his generation. Apart, that is, from New Era Dance, composed in 1992 for the New York Philharmonic's sesquicentennial season (recorded by Zinman with the Baltimore Symphony in an Argo collection called "Dance Mix," as in mixed bag) - the only kitschy work I knew by him. It is hardly distinguishable from short pieces by Michael Torke, David Schiff or Christopher Rouse among the 11 on that disc, which begins and ends with Bernstein's "Mambo" from West Side Story Symphonic Dances, duh.

Colored Fields is profoundly more serious. The opening section was "sparked" by a 1989 visit to the concentration-camp sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau, where Kernis saw "children chew blades of grass [from] ground once blood-soaked: an outlandish combination of regenerative innocence and latent evil." A lullaby at the start of "Colored Fields" gives way to "fearsome nightmares" - the most emotionally dislocating music by Kernis that I know. It is followed by "Pandora's Box," a brief but eerie scherzo about "little black things slithering out of a box," alleviated only (and briefly) by a plainchant middle section. The concluding movement is "Hymns and Tablets," longer than the first two combined, and by turns solacing, neo-Mahlerian, but also cyclical in its return to the start of "Colored Fields" - "reminding us that this cycle of good and evil is likely to return again and again."

Mork's cello is a pleading voice in the wilderness, with an F-major prayer before the work ends as quietly as it began (but no longer deceptively so). The English horn version features a more fragile protagonist in a slightly more transparent ambience as recorded, but the cello version justifies the composer's decision to revise Colored Fields. It will disturb and haunt, but also move you profoundly, I think. Neither background nor elevator music, it demands that you listen...will not let you do otherwise. Mork is a masterful cellist, both here and in Air, who collaborates seamlessly with Eiji Oue and the orchestra that proudly claims Kernis as Composer in Residence.

Only Musica celestis for string orchestra has been recorded previously in this form: by Hugh Wolff and the City of Birmingham Orchestra (along with Second Symphony and Invisible Mosaic III), a performance just 5 seconds longer than Oue's. I decline to make a choice because now I have and am deeply moved by both. Note, however, like the other works from Virgin, Musica celestis is a string choir arrangement of the Adagio slow movement from Kernis' 1990 String Quartet, which the Lark Quartet recorded in its 32-minute entirety on Argo's first all-Kernis CD, coupled with Symphony in Waves by Gerard Schwarz and the New York Chamber Symphony. If you can find any or all in this dire time of disc deforestation, grab them. But don't neglect this second version of Colored Fields, et al. on Virgin. The recording may not replicate the splendor of Reference Recordings' latest and best with Oue and the Minneapolitans but it is nonetheless red-blooded, finely balanced, and shattering in the best sense.

R.D. (Nov. 2001)