Jonathan Leshnoff Symphony 3 beautiful and inspiring

The horrors of the First World War were not lost on the artists who survived it. Works written immediately after to commemorate the event were generally quiet, contemplative pieces. The music focussed on the senseless loss of life and eschewed any hints of military glory. Jonathan Leshnoff continues that tradition with his Third Symphony.

Written for the centennial of Armistice Day, Leshnoff gives voice to those who fought. He sets excerpts from letters written to loved ones at home. They don’t talk about the glory of battle but share quiet, intimate moments in simple yet beautifully poetic language.

Leshnoff reverses the standard three-movement form (fast-slow-fast). The outer movements are slow, while the middle movement bristles with nervous energy. The baritone enters during the final movement, singing over long, lyrical passages.

It’s a beautiful work, beautifully constructed. And a worthy memorial to those who served.

Leshnoff composed his piano concerto for Joyce Yang, who premieres the work on this release. Once again, Leshnoff breaks the rules (sort of) with a four rather than a three-movement concerto. Structurally, the work resembles a symphony. But it’s definitely a concerto. The piano enters right at the beginning, an equal partner in the work as it unfolds.

Joyce Yang shines, as might be expected. This is music written for her and her performance brings out its best. The Kansas City Symphony, directed by Michael Stern also sounds fine, especially in the performance of the symphony. It’s a nuanced work, and the ensemble delivers.

Reference released this as an SACD recording. If you’re opting for a digital download, I recommend investing in the highest resolution possible. The symphony has long stretches at low volume levels. That resolution is essential to hear all the details in those quiet passages — and those details are essential to understanding what Leshnoff is saying.

Jonathan Leshnoff
Symphony No. 3, inspired by World War I letters home; Stephen Powell, baritone
Piano Concerto; Joyce Yang, piano
Kansas City Symphony; Michael Stern, conductor
Reference Recordings FR-7395

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