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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Elena KATS-CHERNIN (b. 1957)
Wild Swans Concert Suite (2003) [36’47]
1.Green Leaf [2:39]; 2. Eliza Aria [3:17]; 3. Brothers [1:50]; 4. Wicked Witch [1’51]; 5. Magic Spell Tango [3:42]; 6. Good Fairy [3:16]; 7. Knitting Nettles [3:17]; 8. Darkness in the Forest [3:43]; 9. Eliza and the Prince [3:55]; 10. Glow Worms [1:28];
11. Mute Princess [3:50]; 12. Transformation [3:59]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (2001) [18:23]
13. I [5:34]; 14. II [4:08]; 15. III [2:47]; 16. IV [5:54]
Mythic (2004) [11:28]
Jane Sheldon, soprano (1-12); Ian Munro, piano (12-16)
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Ola Rudner
rec. 16-19 August 2004, Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania. DDD
ABC CLASSICS 476 7639 [66:41]

Elena Kats-Chernin is one of Australia’s foremost contemporary composers. Of recent times she has enjoyed an unusually high media profile for someone of that idiom.

A most informative documentary about this composer was shown recently on ABC television; this was followed several weeks later by an excellent one hour interview on ABC AM radio. In the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, Oct 15, 2005 journalist Jacqui Taffel complemented these with further insights into the composer’s astonishing creativity and prodigious work ethic. Apparent through all this is an engaging openness that is reflected in her music; Kats-Chernin is as refreshing as her music.

The review disc, "Wild Swans" was nominated in the classical division of the 2005 ARIA (Australian Recorded Industry Awards). Even cursory listening suggests that its strength is not appeal to the "conservative establishment" the preferences of which ultimately have a major influence on the outcome of this award.

Born in the Uzbekistan capital, Tashkent, Elena received her musical training in Yaroslavl and Moscow before migrating to Australia in 1975. She studied composition with Richard Toop and graduated from the NSW Conservatorium of Music in 1980. Aided by a DAAD fellowship she then studied with Helmut Lachenmann in Hanover. Among her favourite composers are Kurtág and Scelsi: "Kurtág for his willingness to return to basic elements of scales and common chords while at the same time opening up new kinds of sound words; Scelsi for his intensely concentrated writing often beginning with a single note."

Kats-Chernin’s range of works is enormous and includes symphonies, operas, cabarets, concertos and music for film, ballet and theatre. She also composed music for the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games and the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

One of the most exciting and enjoyable aspects of her music is that one never knows quite what to expect next. The composer hates the idea of being predictable; every piece is a challenge to surprise her audience. Her approach is to anticipate what is expected and then do the opposite. The orchestral piece "Mythic"(17) is a case in point. Several years after returning to Australia she accepted a commission from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. The resultant work "Heaven is Closed" is quick, energetic and rhythmically driven. In response to a request from the Orchestra for a second work, she instinctively decided on something totally different; the direction hitherto unexplored by the composer incorporated a sustained and slow dark mood to see where it took her. Eventually the work developed into a kind of hymn with variations; sometimes almost romantic, making exhaustive use of the orchestra’s brass section.

Wild Swans (2003) is the result of a collaboration for the Australian Ballet with choreographer Meryl Tankard. The story derives from Hans Christian Andersen. The young girl Eliza is driven from her home by her wicked stepmother who turns Eliza’s eleven brothers into wild swans. To break the spell she must knit eleven coats of stinging nettles, find the swans and dress them in their jackets all the while keeping silent, as the months turn into years. As one may anticipate, music with a lightness and clarity would ideally suit the fairytale world of the story and the music does just that; but it also has a bittersweet quality, and many of the episodes employ a single soprano voice among the instruments resulting in a profoundly haunting effect.

A highlight of this composition is "Eliza Aria" (2) a combination of soprano voice and orchestra which is hauntingly memorable. Those who may have heard the delightful "Concerto For One Voice" by Saint-Preux (b.1945) (Avan-Guard, Stec LPB 85) will again be reminded how effective and versatile this combination can be in a contemporary context. If the imagination is allowed an unrestrained and fertile moment, there are even echoes of "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" in "Aliza Aria". Common threads of hauntingly beautiful melodies and effects pervade all three compositions endowing them with a "once heard never forgotten" quality

In the same vein as Kats-Chernin’s approach to the composing of "Mythic", the "First Piano Concerto" written for Stephanie McCallum, influenced the structure of the "Second Piano Concerto." The former is strongly rhythmic and percussive in nature, and the composer set out to compose a more lyrical and unashamedly melodic work for pianist Ian Munro whose playing had always captivated the composer with its poetry.

Unlike the "First Piano Concerto" which commences with a bang, the new work has a more atmospheric and reflective start not unlike an earlier work " Purple Prelude". The second movement incorporates very brief motifs based on Chopin waltzes and other of his works that are fashioned into a blues-like interlude. This movement is dedicated to the composer’s mother who, very passionate about Chopin waltzes, was diagnosed with terminal illness during its composition. The third movement, more of an "in your face" cabaret style, short, loud and fast, is less harmonious than the previous two. The piano is mostly in strenuous disagreement with the orchestra.

Performances by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Jane Sheldon, and Ian Munro are very enjoyable and complementary to the quality of these compositions.

With the passage of time future listeners will, on initial exposure to this recording, wonder how music of this interest and quality could possibly have escaped their attention. But then among composers of calibre, Elena Kats-Chernin is not alone in suffering this malady.

"Wild Swans" is highly recommended listening.

Zane Turner

 

 



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