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Elena KATS-CHERNIN (b.1957)
Butterflying – Piano Music
Tamara-Anna Cislowska (piano)
Elena Kats-Chernin (piano)
rec. 10-12 Aug 2015, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney
ABC CLASSICS 481 2625 [64:17 + 63:38]

Whatever Tamara-Anna Cislowska does rewards attention and listening time. My most recent encounter came with her account of the complete piano music of Peter Sculthorpe for ABC Classics (review). She has explored the unfashionable end of the Australian piano music literature (review) and worked with fellow Australian Geoffrey Tozer on the Chandos CD of the Rawsthorne piano concertos (review). As for Elena Kats-Chernin, those in the UK already know at least one piece by her. Not so many years ago her enchanting Eliza Aria from the ballet Wild Swans became the far-from-background signature tune to a commercial for Lloyds-TSB. As Zane Turner said in his review of Kats-Chernin's ABC Classics orchestral collection: once heard never forgotten. Her music was also used at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the 2003 Rugby World Cup. She is a distinguished and successful composer.

ABC assure us that this two CD set is the first major survey of the piano music of Elena Kats-Chernin. Her childhood in Uzbekistan brought her into contact with the piano which in her words became her ‘best friend’. The album includes 14 world premiere recordings out of 31 tracks. Most of the pieces are short - not much longer than three minutes. The longest are Vocalise and Schubert Blues at 10 minutes and 12 minutes respectively. Their dates are from 1963 to 2015. Most however were written in the 2000s.

This is not tough or thorny material. You could play this and listen attentively - as you should - or you could listen and enjoy in the background although the writing and the performances will draw you in at different points to concentrate on the specifics. We start with Butterflying with its warm and incessant speed and its Rachmaninovian touches. Afterwards is all contented tiredness while the stuttered and sauntering Conversation also sports some splintery impacts. Russian Rag is a Scott Joplin echo but with Russian overtones. It’s a companion to the happy fast tempo Russian Toccata. For Richard voices rising passion above a tense-pregnant ostinato. There's a similarity to Nyman here.

All Things Conspire comes across as a calming floral blessing. As Eliza Aria, its April shower ostinato is already famous but in this version it feel more lulling than charmingly balletic. The Japanese garden Bach evocation that is The Rain Puzzle is followed by Vocalise with its trembling piano textures and a melody that rises, slowly attaining confidence. Lullaby for Nick is the earliest piece here (1963) and reflects the composer's memories of a Russian childhood. It was much liked by her youngest son, Nick. Waltz of Things Past is a reverie that touches on the worlds of Satie and Ravel. Cinema is a shard reflecting her work on a film about Chaplin impersonators. Marcato is based on a chattering movement from Kats-Chernin's concerto for saxophone quartet and orchestra while the Valentino-inspired Slicked Back Tango is completely in 1930s tango style. Blue Tears is a slowly incessant piece based on water. Autumn has arpeggios of falling leaves with Russian melancholia woven in. Autumn is the composer's favourite time of year. Black Tie comes across as a stiff backboned waltz but with a romantic flourish from time to time.

The second disc opens with Dance of the Paper Umbrellas, written following a visit to a hospital leukaemia ward. The image conjured is of a cake adorned with miniature paper umbrellas all in music-box motion. Scherzino has, it seems, been described as "Bach at the discoth�que" but I don’t get the disco reference at all; that probably says more about me than about the music. It has some headily dark currents and eddies and stands out in this company. Blue Silence: again the composer is in her element with this meditatively hypnotic music. It was written following one of the composer's sons being diagnosed as schizophrenic. Zerno is another chiming and flowing essay while Play Properly is brief and witty with a contrast between piano playing errors on one hand and skill on the other.

The slow, contented, chiming waltz that is Adrift recalls the potent atmosphere of the central movement of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances. After the delicate Naive Waltz comes the introspective Chorale, which is something of a melancholic blank wall. Schubert Blues is notable for its otherworldly flinty notes contrasted with a deep-tolling bass. The Rain Puzzle: Many Hands Remix takes us back to the composer's hallmark phasing liquid effects - delightful. Finally we come to the three- movement Sunshine Journal with a nervy fast attack Allegro. It is very exciting and jazzy in the manner of the first movement of Walton's Sinfonia Concertante. The slow Devotion movement is relaxed and not commanding in any obvious way. The final Travel movement is also very exciting with reports from hitting the piano woodwork. It's all very aggressive and a good way to end this often slow-pulsed recital.

The smart booklet includes brief profiles of each work by the composer plus a general essay by her as well as an artist bio for Cislowska.

Many of the pieces here are most emotively taken by Cislowska. Others are skilfully presented in versions for piano four hands with the composer resuming a long-standing friendship and collaboration in performances which, we are told, are half-composed, half-improvised.

Elena Kats-Chernin is here stylishly and presumably authoritatively profiled in her piano music. This is chimingly liquid and memorably melodic music.

Rob Barnett

Afterwards *
Conversation *
Russian Rag in A minor *
For Richard *
All Things Conspire
Eliza Aria *
The Rain Puzzle
Lullaby for Nick *
Waltz of Things Past
Marcato *
Slicked Back Tango *
Blue Tears
Black Tie
Dance of the Paper Umbrellas *
Scherzino *
Blue Silence
Zerno *
Play Properly
Russian Toccata *
Naive Waltz
Schubert Blues
The Rain Puzzle: Many Hands Remix *
Sunshine Journal (three excerpts) *
* denotes piano four hands



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