Woman at the New Piano: American Music of 2013
Airdancing, for toy piano, piano, and electronics [8:27]
Finger Songs, for solo piano [11:00]
Adam SCHOENBERG (b.1980)
Picture Etudes, for solo piano [13:33]
Tom Flaherty
Part Suite-a, for solo piano [17:37]
James MATHESON (b.1970)
Cretic Variations, for solo piano [14:14]
Bounce, for two pianos [10:49]
Nadia Shpachenko (piano); Genevieve Feiwen Lee (piano) (“Bounce”) and toy piano and electronics (“Airdancing”)
rec. 11-14 July, 2013, Bridges Hall of Music, Pomona College, Claremont, California, USA
The title “Woman at the New Piano” indicates the pianist, Nadia Shpachenko, but the composers are all men. This is a compendium of American music by male writers from the year 2013, mostly for solo piano. As you’d expect for such a yearbook-style compendium, there are some hits, some near-hits, a few misses and a whole lot of stylistic diversity.

Let’s start with the youngest, most approachable and most unfortunately-named composer here: Adam Schoenberg. Doomed to always be the second-most-famous A. Schoenberg, Adam couldn’t be further removed from his namesake’s shadow. His Picture Etudes, each based on famous painters, are catchy, witty and apt. “Three Pierrots” catches the clownish spirit of the Albert Bloch original, which shows the Pierrots dancing. “Miró’s World” is a bit jazzy, a bit silly and a whole lot anarchic. Think of the Miró on the cover of Brubeck’s Time Further Out. The last two works are longer, including an impressionist tone-picture depicting Van Gogh and very much in the style of Debussy, Séverac or Pierné.

Schoenberg is very clear about the purpose of his two-piano piece Bounce: “I knew that this work would be inspired by my first child. It is a rhythmic, groove-oriented piece that is meant to be fun! ... It is by far the most innocent and happy work I’ve ever written.”

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is James Matheson’s Cretic Variations, a fourteen-minute epic series of variations on the long-short-long spoken rhythm. It’s a tour de force. The chords and harmonies sometimes remind me strongly of Brahms and Prokofiev, while the breadth and scope inevitably call to mind Bach’s Chaconne. Despite those echoes, it’s still a very original success. Even further “out there” is Tom Flaherty’s piece Airdancing, which requires a toy piano and electronics. The creepy opening, and the spindly, percussive sound of the toy piano, may put you in mind of a horror film.

Flaherty also contributes a punnishly-titled Part Suite-a (Partita-suite…get it?) with movements like a “Passacaglialude” and a “Lullabande”. The first bars will scare anybody with a strong aversion to music that’s “too modern”, but I have a hard time imagining anybody will dislike the tortured nocturne that is the “Lullabande”. Rounding out the disc is composer Peter Yates, whose five Finger Songs are miniatures that range from a rather dry take on the blues to two tracks which sound like contemporary updates of Debussy. “Mysterious Dawn” sounds like a Prelude or Image written by a 21st-century conservatory teacher, while “All Better” is an academized version of “Golliwog’s Cakewalk”. If this sounds like faint praise, I’m afraid I am not a fan of the style.

One can never tell if a world premiere recording is definitive, but Nadia Shpachenko plays excellently through the whole album. The composers love her, too: Matheson says, of Cretic Variations, every note was “inspired directly by the brilliance, bravado, subtlety, poetry, explosiveness and restraint of Nadia Shpachenko.” Most of the music here was dedicated to her, although Bounce is for the composer’s newborn son.

Also, and I don’t know if this is relevant, the production of this CD seems to have been a lot of fun. Tom Flaherty’s website is charmingly silly, and so are all the photographs in the booklet, like the one where pianist and composers sit underneath a “NO PLAYING” sign, arms folded, wearing their unhappiest faces. There are also some very silly allusions to 2012’s Mayan apocalypse, which I won’t dignify with a critical discussion.

If there’s a downside to this release, it’s that we might start expecting a new one every year. Nadia Shpachenko has done heroic work here, and the composers provide stimulating listening. I will be returning with special interest to the works by Matheson and Schoenberg. Adam Schoenberg has an orchestral recording coming soon; I don’t know what’s on it, but I’d guess his American Symphony and a commission which has been described as a 21st-century Pictures at an Exhibition. I can’t wait to hear it.

Brian Reinhart

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