In an era marked by emphasis on thematic programming, sometimes it seems the theme counts more than the music, or that the music serves the theme. When all goes well, however, a theme can lend insight and bring pieces together synergistically, where they are better together than apart.
The latter is what happens on Nadia Shpachenko‘s new CD, Quotations and Homages. Noticing that some of her favorite composers had written pieces based on existing music, she conceived of a program to celebrate the practice of composing with quotation. The next step was to select the right repertoire, and to commission the rest.
“I approached composers I know and like and commissioned the music to fit this programming concept,” explained Shpachenko on the program’s genesis.
The result was a body of works that simultaneously looks backward and forward—a program that honors existing traditions while venturing forth into new terrains of composition.
Opening the recording with an uplifting brilliance–by turns motoric and ecstatic–Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle draws on the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which “immediately came to mind” when Shpachenko commissioned the work. Flaherty transforms the gentle waves of Messiaen’s piano writing into a mosaic of rapid-fire repeated notes, interspersed with rapturous chordal outpourings. Electronics heighten the piano part and add unexpected dimension, much as that of the original quartet’s instrumentation.
The program takes a turn for the dark and stormy in Missy Mazzoli’s Bolts of Loving Thunder, an offshoot of the Rhapsody in G minor by Brahms. Recounting her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the work as a developing pianist, Mazzoli draws on many of the same gestures Brahms used in the Rhapsody: chordal crashes, energetic surges of arpeggiation, and flurries of tremolando activity. A unique statement emerges, at once Mazzoli’s, yet clearly welling up from the work’s guiding source material–a kind of séance of Brahms through music.
Next up, Peter Yates’s Epitaphs and Youngsters, proves how dynamic and flexible Shpachenko’s homage concept turns out to be. The work contrasts in mood and means with the preceding music, and that to follow. Generally introspective, the work draws on varying musical styles to convey the essence of figures important to Yates, in this case, John Muir, W. C. Fields, Glenn Gould, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Shpachenko intones text quotes in a lyrical sprechstimme with feeling and understanding. The artwork of Shpachenko’s own sons also served as inspiration, hence the “youngsters” in the work’s title.
In another commission by Shpachenko, Vera Ivanova’s Six Fugitive Memories reflects on a range of piano repertoire in a collage of six short movements. Ivanova cleverly reinterprets essential fragments by Debussy and Satie (whose music coalesces like two colliding galaxies in “Debutie”), Prokofieff, György Kurtág, Morton Feldman, and Galina Ustvolskaya at her most formidable.
In a reverse palette-cleanser of sorts, Nick Norton’s startlingly compact work, Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday, iterates every note on the piano exactly once. The highly virtuosic work of nine seconds in length effectively divides the album down the middle, sending the second half off in an energetic burst of raw pianistic power.
Taking the album down a surreal turn, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart injects a healthy dose of humor with his terse variation set after Mozart’s Sonata Facile, K. 545. Each variation is inspired by an alcoholic beverage (never mind that most who play the Mozart are underage), including Dirty Martini, Cheap Boxed Wine, and Absinthe. Borecki conveys the spirit of each drink in vivid musical depictions, proving that homage need not be serious. Shpachenko has performed the work with a slideshow of clever pop-art slides to accompany each variation. The slideshow adds significantly to the work, but even as audio alone the work belongs on the disc and including it was the right decision. Shpachenko’s sensitive rubato and probing creativity fill the gap of missing visual cues.
The genius of this album is in its effortless flow. Each work follows naturally from one to the next. Though unified by the common theme of homage, each piece is wholly individual and unrelated to the others, enabling continuous listener attention.
Daniel Felsenfeld contributed in an area heretofore untouched on the album: rock, with all its drive and defiance. The seventies band Velvet Underground served as impetus for his Down to You is Up, where Felsenfeld channels the spirit of his younger years driving the streets of Los Angeles while listening to the subversive band. The work, and Shpachenko’s committed rendering, satisfy in the visceral sense expected of rock at its best.
Shpachenko is joined by top pianists in their own right (Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay, Sarah Gibson, and Thomas Kotcheff) for the final two numbers on the disk.
James Matheson’s Bagatelle commemorates Beethoven, composer of many bagatelles, though here it is the Eroica symphony that provides the quotation vocabulary. Perhaps also an homage to Sonata form, the piece “pulls apart, recontextualizes, stacks, and layers” the quoted music, and does so on a distinctly Beethovenian scale: 6 pianists on 3 pianos.
The album concludes impactfully and intuitively in a work by Tom Flaherty, his Igor to Please. Commemorating Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the work stems from the famous “Augurs of Spring” chord, but only hints at it. A work as inherently diverse as the album itself, it is scored for six pianists on two pianos, two toy pianos, and electronics.
Though derived from the Rite, Flaherty’s Igor bears little resemblance to the music of Stravinksy. Instead, it conjures the macabre world of pagan Russia and its barbaric springtime rituals in a way that resonates with contemporary ears. Utilizing differing musical languages and very different musical forces, the two composers attained similar achievements: to edify, dazzle, perhaps trouble, and certainly please.
Quotations and Homages undoubtedly comes at great effort on Shpachenko’s part. The concept is creative, the program well constructed, and Shpachenko’s pianism is of the highest caliber. The recording is sure to remain a mainstay of the contemporary discography for posterity.
Quotations and Homages is available on Reference Recordings at referencerecordings.com/recording/quotations-homages and from all major online music retailers.