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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Elena KATS-CHERNIN (b.1957) Chamber of Horrors
Charleston Noir (1996) [8:57]
Chamber of Horrors (1995) [6:42]
Still Life (2001) [11:26]
Gypsy Ramble (1996) [11:21]
Wild Rice (1996) [7:59]
Velvet Revolution for horn trio (1999)
The Four Basses (Charleston Noir)
Alice Giles (harp Chamber of Horrors)
Patricia Pollett (viola), Patricia Pollett (piano Still Life)
Perihelion (Gypsy Ramble)
David Pereira (cello Wild Rice)
Tall Poppies Ensemble (Velvet Revolution)
rec. 1996-2005, ABC Sydney except for Still Life, Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Steinway Hall, and Velvet Revolution at University of Newcastle Concert Hall.
TALL POPPIES RECORDS TP181 [61:40]

 

This is a very nicely programmed CD. Some of the pieces have already appeared on Tall Poppies, so if the titles Still Life and Wild Rice look strangely familiar then this is why. Elena Kats-Chernin has an attractive mix of energy and fun on offer, with enough darker moments to stimulate the little grey cells. Born in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, she studied for a while in Moscow, her family emigrating to Australia in 1975. She lived and worked in Germany for 13 years, and returned to Australia in 1993.

So, what do four double-basses sound like? In Charleston Noir they might sound like four cellos to the uninitiated – Kats-Chernin using the higher registers to project pulsing harmonies for those dance rhythms. It’s only when you get that deep ‘whoom’ in the bass, or an improbably low and resonant pizzicato that you really gain that full bull-fiddle impact. In the low registers it is almost impossible to make a bass sound melodious, and ensemble The Four Basses do well to make the whole thing sound mostly in-tune in the high. There are some great fun moments in this piece, and the improbable instrumentation actually suits the idiom of a Charleston style piece very well.

Chamber of Horrors, the title track, is an impressive study in harp textures and resonances – written fairly conventionally, but treated electronically in order to heighten some of the cinematic spooky effects. If you’ve never heard vibrato in a harp note, then you will here, and there are some sharp shifts in perspective and strange echoes which extend the closely recorded strings – almost giving you the impression that you’re playing the piece yourself!

Still Life is written in six short movements. The first brings out the viola in a melancholy melody underscored by nicely written chordal figures in the piano – largely in the high register, but bowing down for an impressive climax. The second movement is a virtuosic, almost folk-like movement based of the interval of a fifth, with some grand romantic gestures toward the end. The third introduces more jazzy rhythms and a bluesy feel, the fourth a pizzicato reflection over a chaconne-like chorale in the piano. With movement no.5 forceful and tango-like in turns, we’re given the contrast between life and death with the funereal sixth movement, which brings us full circle, introducing material from the 1st movement at its conclusion. This is a piece with ‘legs’ which would fit superbly in any viola/piano duo recital.

Gypsy Ramble was written for the ensemble which plays it here, Perihelion. Strikingly rhythmic, but with those searching harmonic gestures which Kats-Chernin does so well, the opening leads us into an impressive set of variations from which the Russian flavour of the initial theme is never quite absent – even when in full tango mode.

Wild Rice was written for David Pereira. Already impressed with his recent solo outing on Tall Poppies, Electric Cello (TP180), I was glad to hear his deeply resonant and expressive cello sound being explored to the full. The composer combines ‘the evocative high register of the cello with its percussive low counterpart’, and the effect is sustained and intense, the resonant studio acoustic almost artificially reinforcing some of the double stops, which sometimes approach the effect of an entire string orchestra.

Grand effect and gesture are also an aspect of the opening of Velvet Revolution, another sis movement piece in which permutations of the horn trio’s forces are rotated. Living in Berlin at the time of the fall of the wall, the composers own experiences resolved the problem of writing for a combination already stamped by the personalities of Brahms and Ligeti. ‘I was concerned with the portrayal of constant change, but not… in a programmatic sense but rather as an emotional portrait of the people and the circumstances.’ This charged and impressive work lives up to all expectations, and must be as satisfying to study and perform as it should be to experience as an audience.

It almost goes without saying that all the works here are beautifully performed and recorded, having a unity which dispels any doubts created by the ‘compilation’ nature of this CD. I have been most pleasantly surprised, impressed, moved and challenged by the work of Elena Kats-Chernin. Her musical language keys directly into the human scale of emotions, being stirring and uplifting without being sentimental: tough and uncompromising without resorting to aversion-therapy atonality or over-use of special effects. If her pieces were books, they would be the nice leather-bound ones with the really good stories – ones which you know you want to keep available for reference or recreation, and which you know will last forever.

Dominy Clements

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