JONATHAN LESHNOFF – The ‘Miller Kahn’ Quartet

American Contemporary composer Jonathan Leshnoff [born 1973] has written at least four string quartets. They are spread over three CDs and I am going to discuss the Third Quartet which is coupled with the Fourth on the review CD. This work, in three movements, is titled Miller Kahn. The score is noted as being commissioned by Harris Miller and Deborah Kahn in honour of their life together.

The opening movement is marked grave and consists of a solo violin with a very strong attack. The opening phrase is harmonised to create a powerful episode. Now the music turns shrill, all the while maintaining an intensity before the pitch returns to a lower register and a sense of sparsity unfolds. The sustained first violin features long phrases, together with a somewhat smeared accompaniment. Slowly the violin moves through the registers to a middle ground. Two other melodic lines are heard in the background, which is roughly where the first violin sits – this is poignant music, with all four voices lamenting. A progression unfolds and again power is the operative word. A brief pause leads into a slight change in texture, with all four voices being somewhat stilted as they ascend in pitch.

A new section unfolds with the ensemble being rather measured, although all voices can still be heard. The shrill violin is several octaves higher than the accompaniment which again builds into a sustained passage that the violin passes through in its opening manner. The music becomes stagnant but for the solo violin which leads to a peaceful end.

The next movement, marked Romance, is short, lasting barely two minutes. It features the violin over a pizzicato texture. A harmonised melodic line has all instruments in play. I particularly like the cello, rich in texture and timbre. A repeat of the introduction leads to a warmly harmonised passage which fades out.

The final movement, ‘allegro with spirit’ begins with a whirring, dynamic motif played by several instruments. As it rises in pitch it moves through several changes in harmony. The tension is built over a short period of time. Now the violin steps back into the ensemble and is joined by the second violin, again causing a rise in pitch. I wouldn’t call the violin line a melody as it is mostly too sparse. Harmonic changes are again evident and the music stops just short of fever pitch as the violin propels the original motif forward. There is no letup to this thrusting mood as the ensemble parries with the ensemble – this is fever pitch, with the violin being strong together with the pulsating accompaniment.

Now the roles are reversed, with the violin stressing the rhythmic motif and the ensemble providing the key melody. A brief pause leads to several harmonised thrusts, with a repeated section leading to a conclusion.

I like all of the four quartets and also the Four Dances for String Quartet which are on the self-titled review CD, together with the Fourth Quartet. This CD is on the MSR Classics label and features the Carpe Diem Quartet. The Carpe Diem also appear on the two Naxos discs that contain Quartets One and Two.

All of the quartets are on Spotify and earsense while the two quartets from the review CD can be heard on YouTube .

Listenability: While definitely Contemporary, there is nothing dangerous here!


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