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.
A new CD by Nadia Shpachenko, Woman at the New Piano – American Music of 2013, has been released containing 75 minutes of piano music by no less than four separate contemporary composers. Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson have all contributed new works written to celebrate the fact that the world had managed to survive the Mayan Calendar predictions of doom for December 2012. As Nadia states in the CD booklet: “ I feel this program is a remarkable snapshot of compositional activity in the year 2013, a fascinating exposé of how four brilliant people see and experience this newly transformed world, how they express themselves through music, and how their different ideas are brought together by an enthusiastic performer who believes in their legacy.”
Airdancing by Tom Flaherty is first and for this piece Nadia on piano is joined by Genevieve Feiwen Lee on toy piano and electronics. Airdancing opens with deep mysterious chords in the lower registers of the piano with a playfully light melody on the toy piano floating on top. There is a syncopated hand-off between the two that is most engaging given the different timbres. Now some electronic percussion in the form of a deep bass drum adds an ominous feel and then lighter cymbal-like taps are added to produce a distinctly Asian feel. The deep, rumbling bass drum returns and is joined by low notes in the piano giving a palpable sense of menace. The pace accelerates, building drama and tension. The piece concludes with a swirl of keyboard runs and sudden silence. Tom Flaherty states in the liner notes: “As I worked on this piece, images of falling, floating, and flying often came across my computer monitor.” Airdancing is an appealing combination of the traditional piano sounds and electronic percussion. The lightness in the rhythms and timbre of the electronics are nicely contrasted with the lower, more ominous sections in an interesting mix.
Tom Flaherty also contributed Part Suite-a for Solo Piano, consisting of three dance-like movements: Passacaglialude, Lullabande and Scherzoid. In this suite the mood is a bit darker, starting with a mysterious deep note at the opening of Passacaglialude followed by a simple melody that expands into something more complex and is tinged with a feeling of uncertainty and menace. Although softening slightly as it proceeds, a series of rapid and sharp notes reinforce the uneasiness. At the very last, however, this movement comes to an unexpectedly satisfying close on the final chord.
Lullabande continues in the same mood with a quiet, tentative opening that creates a questioning feel. Single deep notes in the bass add counterpoint and a touch of menace. As the lower notes predominate, this movement takes on a sinister cast. A quiet tension builds in an increasingly complex set of passages until a rapid downward scale ends in silence. A more subdued, reflective section follows but the undercurrents of tension persist at the close.
The final movement of Part Suite-a begins with a series of strong chords and rapid passages the introduce a feeling of anxiety. Very fast moving lines and scales seem to crowd in on the listener. A slower section follows but with a feeling of uncertainty as rising arpeggios and a faster tempo lead to a fast downward run and a moment of silence. The pace picks up, like sanity slipping away, and there is a frantic pace to this requiring good technique – at times it seems like four hands are on the keyboard. Ominous chords in the bass increase the tension with a frantic melody above that builds to a rapid downward run and silence at the finish. Part Suite-a for Solo Piano is a technically challenging piece that is precisely realized here.
Composer Peter Yates contributed Finger Songs for Solo Piano, a series of five short pieces and the first of these, Mood Swing, has a very fast opening – almost a trill – but this soon slows to a pleasant bluesy feel. Different moods come and go: upbeat sections mix with slower or more inward looking passages. The sudden ending takes the listener by surprise but magnifies the realization of how many different moods were heard in just under three and a half minutes.
Gambol, at just 46 seconds is shorter still and packs a faster, brighter sound. Mysterious Dawn is much slower and more enigmatic, making a good contrast to the first two sections. Brave Show is full of lively runs and ornaments and the playing here is crisp and precise. All Better concludes with an upbeat and optimistic feel. Altogether, Finger Songs for Solo Piano is like a candy sampler with all sorts moods, tempos and techniques packed into small, bite-sized packages, Ms.Shpachenko extracting the full flavor of each.
Picture Etudes for Solo Piano by Adam Schoenberg is an amazing collection of four short movements, each musically describing the works of a well known artist. Starting with the short Three Pierrots, based on Albert Bloch’s painting, Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2. Twittering, light and fluttering, this piece requires quick playing. Some lovely chords at the finish bring to mind the brightly colored feathers of the parrots. Miro’s World is next and this is quietly lithe like a cat in the beginning, and then loud with syncopated percussion and a quick melody. In just 1:32 Schoenberg has captured the whimsey of a Miro painting.
Olive Orchard can only be about Van Gogh with a languid, lazy opening – it is a summer day in the south of France. A lovely melody drifts along, now turning a bit darker. There is a feeling of reverence in this and an appealing complexity in the later parts. A very warm and sympathetic portrait of the artist.
Kandinsky, however, is the exact opposite of Olive Orchard, opening with sharp chords and irregular rhythms. A tense, almost sinister feel to this, magnified by strong bass drum beats. A melody appears, fast and abstract, with dissonance that adds to the tension. More rapid fire notes, sharp chords crashing about and the bass drum again. A long descending run finishes this vivid musical description of the expressionist.
Cretic Variations by James Matheson follows and he writes: “Cretic Variations requires quite a lot of the pianist’s hands and brain—sudden shifts of register, simultaneous lines, seamlessly crossing hands, carefully balancing multiple elements… “ This piece opens with a single, sharp high note that becomes a repeating pattern, then speeds up with counterpoint added. Now the patterns move to the middle registers – flowing like running water – with deep bass notes providing a sense of building tension. Chords appear and these come with irregular rhythms and a faster tempo; there is a sense of sustained tension. A melody moves along as an almost familiar-sounding tune , even as this becomes distorted and underscored by unsettling deep chords. There is the sense of motion and fast pace – as if running from something. A series of crashing chords are heard, interwoven with an engaging melody. Finally all is roar and rumble and all the keys become engaged – followed by silence. Deep solemn notes toll out, as fragments of the melody drift by; there is a sad feeling to this. Slow and deliberate notes follow, like watching a setting sun. The final chord provides a welcome sense of acceptance and peace. Cretic Variations is a remarkable journey, full of mood swings and changes of pace, all expertly played.
Adam Schoenberg also contributed Bounce for Two Pianos, which is the final track on the CD. For this Ms. Shpachenko was accompanied by Genevieve Feiwen Lee. Bounce has a slow, deliberate beginning that quickly becomes a bright melody on one one piano with counterpoint in the other. More solemn at 2:45; hymn-like chords are heard in one piano with rapid passages – like water running in a brook – in the second. More dramatic now halfway along, with a definite introspective feel. But this soon breaks out into optimism again, with lively syncopation and increasingly rapid keyboard runs that exhibit an exuberant dissonance. The piece falls back into a more rational, if still bouncy, rhythmic feel and concludes with a conventionally strong ending. Schoenberg writes in the liner notes: “ For Bounce, my main objective was to write the most playful and loving work that I could come up with while imagining having a child.” Bounce for Two Pianos is precisely played by both pianists who compliment each other perfectly while completely meeting the objective of the composer.
Woman at the New Piano is a generous helping of new piano music by four contemporary composers covering a wide range of feelings, moods and techniques. Ms. Shpachenko and Genevieve Feiwen Lee have skillfully combined to produce a memorable recording.