Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Nadia Shpachenko: Woman at the "New" Piano

Woman at the New Piano is an album with a surely cosmic purpose; a commemoration in music of an (almost) monumental (and now likely forgotten) event that thankfully did not come to pass. “In the year 2012”, pianist Nadia Shpachenko writes in the album notes, “the nation was swept by a fear that had not been seen since the Y2K transition of January 1, 2000." According to a Mayan calendar and accompanying legends, the world would end on December 21st, 2012 since the calendar went no further, or something like that. Waking up seemingly alive and in the same world as the day before, Nadia thought “let's celebrate and document this great transition! Let's write and perform new pieces which capture where we are, and where we are going. It's a whole new world, let's play it!”

Indeed this prodigiously talented, California-based pianist and teacher, has recorded a delightful and diverse program of brand new works she commissioned in 2013 from four outstanding composers, Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson. Released on the Reference Recordings FRESH! label, devoted to recordings of new artists and new repertoire. 

I was particularly interested in the four movement suite “Picture Etudes” by Adam Schoenberg for solo piano since I was very familiar with the orchestral version “Picture Studies” having attended the premiere with the Kansas City Symphony in 2012. But before I could program the machine to play those tracks, I was immediately immersed in the absorbing, colorful and animated sound world of Tom Flaherty's “Airdancing” for Piano, Toy Piano and Electronics.

Inspired by floating and falling images of cliff divers, giant squids and daredevil “Fearless Felix” Baumgartner's dramatic supersonic skydive from 39km above the earth, “Airdancing” is 8 minutes kinetic movement that takes you along on a falling, floating journey. The prominent timbre of the toy piano may first evoke the works of George Crumb and John Cage, but very soon dark and foreboding electronic percussion sounds contrast and then lighten to propel the work forward. Flaherty often integrates the instruments into a single entity and then just as suddenly unleashes them to go their separate ways, careening to a sweeping, swirling end that evaporates in to eerie silence.

Arresting, dramatic, exhilarating and sometimes briefly serene, “Airdancing” stretches the listener's imagination and challenges the ear while being accessible and frankly smile producing enjoyable. Reference Recordings' clear, detailed sonics bring out every nuance, never overwhelming the toy piano but also never distorting it to absurdity. Shpachenko clearly commands and loves this colorful work, and is more than ably assisted by Genevieve Feiwen Lee on the toy piano and electronics.

So after listening to “Airdancing” a few times, I skipped on to the Schoenberg (although taking the works in the CD's order is just as rewarding).

“Picture Etudes” and the related “Studies” draws obvious connections to Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Both works have piano and orchestra versions and musically reflect a series of paintings in a gallery. While Mussorgsky's pictures are of one artist, Schoenberg's inspiration came from paintings by a variety of artists in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, MO. Four of the Ten orchestra movements were selected by the composer to make up “Etudes” If curious about the orchestra version, it has been recorded by Reference Recordings and the Kansas City Symphony for future release.

“Three Pierrots”, inspired by Bloch's “Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2) is ironic, witty and pulsing with nervous, percussive energy. A lot of story and music in a short two minutes. Following is “Miró's World” a reflection on “Women at Sunrise” Joan Miró. Similarly spontaneous and rhythmically vibrant (even adding a part for a drum), “Miró's World” is playful and a bit jazzy, contrasting with the following “Olive Orchard” inspired by Van Gogh's same titled painting. Languid and romantic, “Olive Orchard” is simply beautiful music and the emotional core of the suite. Shpachenko never lets the music get mushy or sweet, Van Gogh's intensity and drama are never far from the surface. “Kandinsky” a musical portrait of Wassily Kandinsky's “Rose with Gray” serves as the finale to the suite. The percussion returns to accent the dry, starkly dramatic piano which sweeps and propels the piece to a crashing, sweeping conclusion.

Shpachenko makes a most convincing case for these portraits and we are unlikely to get such a definitive, affectionate recording soon. As with Mussorgsky, the piano only version gives the listener insight to the inner voices and the frame of the music while the orchestral can dazzle with color and power. Both are worth hearing.

Schoenberg also provides the concluding work on the CD. Also existing in an orchestral version, “Bounce”, for two pianos, is a ten minute playful romp inspired by the 100th anniversary of the “Rite of Spring” and the impending birth of Schoenberg's son. Danceable, fun, enjoyable and superbly executed by Shpachenko with Genevieve Feiwen Lee on the second piano.

Peter Yates' colorful “Pandora's box”, as the composer describes them, six movement suite “Finger Songs” ably demonstrates Shpachenko's range of technique. From sophisticated jazz in “Mood Swing”, misty landscapes in “Mysterious Dawn” and on to adolescent hijinks and light hearted fun with hints of Ragtime in “Gambol” and “All Better”, “Finger Songs” is an important addition to the contemporary piano literature, totally accessible, totally interesting and 100% fun to hear.

Tom Flaherty returns in “Part Suite-a” (to rhyme with partita), a decidedly darker and more introspective than “Airdancing”. A take-off on the baroque suite, the three movements are woven around characteristic elements of the passacaglia, sarabande and scherzo forms. The darker, complex “Passacagliatude” unfolds to a powerful essay from a simple bass ostinato. “Lullabande” is a sweet lullaby with the characteristic sway of the ancient dance. The concluding “Scherzoid” is a virtuoso, tumultuous, romp tinged just a hair with some drama.

The longest single movement in the program, James Matheson's “Cretic Variations” takes us on a kaleidoscopic voyage from a single repeated high note through contrasting variations to an ambiguous quiet ending. The title refers to the poetic cretic foot meter (long, short, long) which, as the composer notes may “..lend itself better to Dr Seuss than more serious poetic endeavors”. Matheson stretches and teases this inherently simple phrase to create a powerful, lyrical and demanding set of variations. Another work that can, and should, become a staple of recitals and programs.

Stellar performances, usual fine Reference Recordings sound throughout, informative liner notes and a most varied and energetic program make “Woman at the New Piano” a clear winner and a new favorite here.

Woman At the New Piano
Nadia Shpachenko, Piano
Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Piano and Toy Piano

Reference Recordings FRESH FR 711

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