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Journey Through Childhood
Veronika Shoot (piano)
rec. 2017 Menuhin Hall, Stoke d'Abernon, UK
ULYSSES ARTS CM2901 [74:02]

Veronika Shoot was born in Moscow, but moved to the UK at the age of five, when her father Vladislav was invited to become composer-in-residence at Dartington Hall, Devon. By the age of seven Veronika had given her first recital there, playing to a sell-out audience as part of the annual International Summer School.

In her extensive CD sleeve-note, Veronika describes the album as “a unique compilation of children’s music, and music inspired by childhood”, comprising both well-known little masterpieces, as well as music hardly ever heard today, together with a number of first-time recordings – or as Shoot so charmingly puts it, “a sonic picture of childhood in a vast array of musical styles, for everybody who loves music and has once been a child”.

Of course, this is by no means a new concept, and CDs which combine some of the most familiar items in this genre repertoire – Debussy’s Children’s Corner and Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, for example – already have a significant presence in the catalogue.

While Shoot has also included works by Takemitsu, Korngold, Lyadov, and Shostakovich, the CD’s unique, and undoubted, selling-point is the debut recording of Children’s Album – a set of thirty-two miniatures written by Veronika’s father in 1971. Vladislav Shoot studied composition at the Gnessin Institute, Moscow – now known as the Russian Academy of Music – before working as the music editor for The Soviet Composer publishers where, using his position, he was able to champion Soviet avant-garde music which, at the time, had been supressed, and often banned. In 1982, he turned to freelance composing, writing music for over twenty films. This provided him with a fertile platform on which he could freely experiment in terms of timbre, texture, and musical style, and where he remained for ten years, before he and his family relocated to the UK in 1992.

Written when the composer was just thirty, and before Veronika, or brother Eli – himself a composer in his own right – appeared on the scene, Vladislav Shoot’s Children’s Album is full of delightful twists, sweeping changes of emotion and with a harmonic and melodic language all of its own, some might even say unlike any other extant children’s music. Shoot’s own thoughts on the matter would definitely seem to confirm what we then hear on the CD, when he says that music for children – and literature, too, for that matter – should be of equal stature to music and writing in other forms. “Creativity”, he says, “comes from childhood, and to develop and reignite this creativity, the child inside should be kept alive”. For her part, Veronika has played these pieces since her earliest days as a pianist, and still finds herself returning to them time and time again. When it was eventually decided to commit them to CD, she rightly felt that she was the very best person for the job, something which becomes increasingly apparent as her father’s album unfolds.

Veronika’s Journey Through Childhood begins, though, with a well-controlled and effective account of Debussy’s ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ from Children’s Corner where he presents his own take on the myriad of studies and exercises by Czerny, Clementi and other, aimed at developing finger independence, something to which all pianists of any age must still aspire. Shoot gives a vibrant reading of ‘Golliwogg’s Cakewalk’¸ even if one felt it to be somewhat unnecessary to have to comment on the first word in the title, when it would have been of far greater interest to read about the significance of ‘cake’ in ‘Cakewalk’.

Debussy’s writing-style then transfers seamlessly across to Takemitsu’s Piano Pieces for Children, which, while giving away no hint as to the composer’s oriental roots, come off most successfully in performance here.

Vladislav Shoot’s Children’s Album, which follows, is the most substantial item on the disc. The opening ‘Early Bird’ is so admirably simple, and you can just feel the sunlight in ‘A Sunny Day’. There is an end-of-day aura to ‘Evening’, whereas the prickly nature of the ‘Hedgehog’ is conveyed by the correspondingly ‘spikey’ nature of the writing. It’s not difficult to imagine the ‘Small Boat’ calmly going about its business, and, despite being just half-a-minute long, ‘Cloud’ still manages to set out its scene. You can almost see the ‘Ball’ bouncing in the next little miniature, and, interestingly, a phrase in the somewhat sleep-inducing ‘Lullaby’ bears a slightly uncanny resemblance to the English nursery-rhyme, ‘Boys and Girls Come Out to Play’. There is a tangible Slavic energy and momentum in ‘Russian Dance’, and ‘Melody’ is, not surprisingly, quite well-endowed in this particular respect. ‘Merry-Go-Round’ is a beguiling little number – catchy, and with a slightly unexpected ending – whereas you can feel being pushed faster and faster from behind in ‘Swing’, before someone kindly holds it back for you to dismount safely. There is something distinctly mischievous in ‘Young Rascal’, which is actually scored as a duet. ‘The Clockwork Doll’ does exactly what it says on the tin, and the ensuing ‘Sounds of Waltz’ has a quaint and appealing melancholic tone. In contrast, ‘The Trained Bear on the Ball’ is a far-more-upbeat three-in-bar number, with an ending which is intended perhaps to leave the listener feeling somewhat up in the air – and possibly the bear, too..

With its legendary cold Russian winters, it should come as no surprise that ‘Farewell to Summer’ is both sad and reflective. Perhaps that’s also why ‘Street Musicians’ appear to be dancing, rather than simply standing around singing or playing, to avoid the curse of cold fingers. ‘Black Doll’ is a slow, bluesy number a la George Gershwin, perhaps even modelled on the second of his Three Preludes for Piano, to which it bears a most fleeting resemblance. ‘Dancing Marionettes’ has something of a Bartók feel to it, with its slightly menacing ending, while it’s only just light showers in ‘Rain During Sunshine’. ‘Two Russian Songs’ are both set in sombre minor keys, with a slight pause between them in performance. There is a distinct ‘cut-and-thrust’ almost ‘beaty’ rhythmic feel to ‘A Sword Figh’t, only the second of the album to be scored as a duet, and where, as with the earlier example, the pianist merely double-tracks the second part. There is something pleasantly chipper and business-like about ‘Happy Meeting’, in complete contrast to ‘Sad Dream’ with its slightly troubled melodic line and chromatically shifting harmonies. ‘A Memory’ is a mildly atonal whereas ‘Barrel Organ’ would seem to be flirting somewhat with bitonality, by appearing to be in two different keys simultaneously. ‘Country Musicians’ do appear to be having a ball, while enjoying some the jazz-inflected writing. ‘Falling Leaves’, if not ostensibly a cover of the old standard, ‘Autumn Leaves’, still seems to share a kind of spiritual oneness, albeit tenuous. ‘Biggest Hope’ is another in the vaguely-bitonal format, whereas with ‘Kite’ – and here I’m assuming that the reference is to inanimate flying object rather than a bird of prey – it’s not overly difficult to follow its jerky, erratic movements, as each change of wind speed or direction catches it. The album closes with ‘The First Waltz’, another of those pieces in triple time, and imbued with melancholy.

The Four Little Caricatures for Children by Erich Korngold take the form of parodies on four other contemporary composers: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Hindemith. Given that they’re all over within the space of three minutes, Korngold makes a good stab at impregnating each one with a slight essence of its parodied-composer’s style

Lyadov’s Musical Snuff-Box is much more familiar to pianists, young and old, and captures the music-box mechanism and sound to perfection.

The six pieces that comprise Shostakovich’s Child’s Notebook really do show the hand of the master-craftsman, and all here are as effective in performance, as they are in fulfilling their respective title.

The CD ends with Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), and here Shoot gives a sparkling rendition of all the old favourites, tautly rhythmical but never rushed in feeling or lacking in sentiment. ‘Catch me if you Can’ is despatched with great panache, while ‘Pleading Child’ enjoys some effective rubato towards the close. There is plenty of power in ‘An Important Event’, while ‘Dreaming’ – often merely assigned to the role of a recital encore, is very tastefully done here, with the pianist wisely shunning any mawkish over-sentimentality. There’s a nice swing to ‘Knight of the Hobbyhorse’, which Shoot delivers in a particularly spirited fashion, and her treatment of ‘All Too Serious’ really seems to get right to the nub of this short, but nonetheless tantalising number, replete with its elusive, yet typically Schumannesque argument. ‘Frightening’ provides another pianistic highlight, leaving a suitably yearning rendition of ‘Child Falling Asleep’, followed by an eminently-thespian performance of ‘The Poet Speaks’, having the final say on Schumann’s charismatic little oeuvre, and the CD itself.

There are many good reasons while this desirable new CD should have a strong appeal, both to music-lovers in general, and piano-music aficionados in particular. Granted, it wouldn’t be too challenging to find numerous recordings of Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood and Debussy’s Children’s Corner, played by artists with more-illustrious pedigrees, from the likes of Schnabel, Gieseking, Lupu, Lang Lang, Freire, or Michelangeli, to name but a few.

But what Veronika Shoot may still lack in comparative street cred, she more than makes up for, especially in her performances of these two iconic children’s albums in particular, where she brings all the advantages of real youthfulness to her playing, but at the same time tempers this with a maturity and insight beyond her years. As a compendium of works in the ‘music for children’ genre, she could scarcely have included more, without exceeding the time restraints of a single CD, and by including the fascinating set of pieces by Shostakovich, for example, she is adding a real bonus, in that there is a direct link between the distinguished Russian composer and her own father, whose composition professor, Nikolai Peyko, was a former pupil and friend of Shostakovich.

The CD is attractively presented, and the comprehensive booklet makes for a most interesting read, despite a couple of small typos that really ought to have been picked up at the proofing stage. The piano sound is good, with just the right degree of ambiance to present everything as originally intended – intimate miniatures, rather than full-blown concert pieces.

But again, what makes this CD so uniquely attractive is its first complete recording of Vladislav Shoot’s Children’s Album, written by a father in hopeful anticipation of his first child, and here played so lovingly by his daughter, able to avail herself so readily of all the undeniable advantages a father-daughter bond can bring to the musical equation.

Philip R Buttall

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Children’s Corner
Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
Jimbo’s Lullaby
Serenade for the Doll
The Snow is Dancing
The Little Shepherd
Golliwogg’s Cakewalk
Toru TAKEMITSU (1930-1996)
Piano Pieces for Children
Vladislav SHOOT (b. 1941)
Children’s Album (Kinderalbum)
Early Bird
A Sunny Day
A Small Boat
Russian Dance
Young Rascal (duet)
The Clockwork Doll
Sounds of Waltz
The Trained Bear on the Ball
Farewell to Summer
Street Musicians
Black Doll
Dancing Marionettes
Rain During Sunshine
To Russian Songs
A Sword Fight (duet)
Happy Meeting
Sad Dream
A Memory
Barrel Organ
Country Musicians
Falling Leaves
Biggest Hope
The First Waltz
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Four Little Caricatures, Op 19:
To make you slumber away
Nothing ventured, nothing gained
Hard Times
Anatoly LIADOV (1855-1914)
A Musical Snuff-Box: Valse-Badinage, Op 32
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Child’s Notebook, Op 69:
The Bear
Gay Story
Sad Story
Clockwork Doll
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood):
Of Foreign Lands and People
A Curious Story
Catch me if you Can
Pleading Child
Perfect Happiness
An Important Event
At the Fireside
Knight of the Hobbyhorse
Almost Too Serious
Child Falling Asleep
The Poet Speaks

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