Elena KATS-CHERNIN (b. 1957) Butterflying
Tamara-Anna Cislowska (piano)
Elena Kats-Chernin (piano duet)
rec. 10-12 Aug 2015, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney ABC CLASSICS 481 2625 [64:17 + 63:38]
Elena Kats-Chernin is one of Australia’s most respected and recorded composers. She emigrated from her native Uzbekistan in 1975, studying at the Sydney Conservatorium before broadening her education in Europe, working there for more than a decade. Her music was heard at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games and 2003 Rugby World Cup.
Kats-Chernin certainly knows how to wring value from her compositions. With this album, I now have three collections of her music, for different instruments (string quartet: review ~ violin and piano) and a number of works turn up in each guise. Her best-known composition Eliza Aria from the ballet Wild Swans is one such. If I had the ability to write such a beautiful piece of music, I’d like to extend its life and range as much as possible. There is a promotional video on Youtube that shows the two performers playing this work.
I was privileged to hear her speak about her music a few years ago, and she said that her style had evolved over time, moving away from the avant-garde towards a more tonal one. This collection of piano works is mostly from her later period, and mixes styles very comfortably, moving from minimalism to ragtime to impressionism to gentle lullabies, all with a distinctive voice.
Rob Barnett has already written a thorough evaluation of this recording. He described her music as “chimingly liquid and memorably melodic”, which is totally apposite, and leaves me scratching around for different adjectives that convey the same sense. Rather than attempt to go over the same ground so well mapped out by Rob, I will simply pick out a few personal highlights.
Russian Rag is a piece familiar to me as it was used as the opening music in a long-running program on Australian radio. Naturally, it has the Joplinesque feel to it with a Russian tinge, but the humour that pervades it is delightful. Phillip Adams, whose Late Night Live radio program this used to open, called it the “Waltz of the Wombats”, giving you an indication of the clumsy humorous piece that it is. In the version here for piano four hands, some of the comic effect is subsumed by the sound of the piano in full Romantic mode – until the very end, that is.
Dance of the paper umbrellas was originally written for full orchestra and recorded for the HUSH Foundation, a charity set up to produce soothing, but intelligent music for playing in stressful environs, such as operating theatres (review). This version for piano duet is not as striking, but still enjoyable.
For Richard is one standout piece which I didn’t know from the other recordings. Rob Barnett mentions Michael Nyman as a stylistic reference; I would add Philip Glass in The Hours mode. Vocalise, one of only two pieces beyond ten minutes, is in similar territory, and not remotely reminiscent of the much-played and arranged Rachmaninov work of the same name.
The difference in sound of the two pianists is quite marked: Cislowska rich and warm, Kats-Chernin more percussive. They are long-term friends, and the opportunity to record together must have provided each with a great deal of pleasure. The recorded sound is very immediate, but avoids any mechanism noises. The notes are provided by the composer, with each work being briefly commented upon. One minor oddity though, which wasn’t explained: the final work Sunshine Journal, is apparently in four movements, but we only get three here. Why?
Rob commented that these were works that could be listened to in the background, but that every so often the music would draw you back in. That is so true. Kats-Chernin has an incredible gift for melodies, but her music is far deeper than superficial prettiness, and will reward both the casual and serious listener.
Russian Rag in A minor *
For Richard *
All Things Conspire
Eliza Aria *
The Rain Puzzle
Lullaby for Nick *
Waltz of Things Past
Slicked Back Tango *
Dance of the Paper Umbrellas *
Russian Toccata *
The Rain Puzzle: Many Hands Remix *
Sunshine Journal (three excerpts) *
* denotes piano four hands