Nadia Shpachenko: Woman At The New Piano
Reference Recordings

For Woman At The New Piano, an exceptional recording of newly composed piano works, Nadia Shpachenko drew for inspiration from an unusual place: the relief she (and others) experienced when the end of the previous Mayan Calendar cycle did not result in the world's termination, as some feared it would. To celebrate, she commissioned new works for piano from acclaimed American composers Tom Flaherty, James Matheson, Adam Schoenberg, and Peter Yates, all of which touch, appropriately enough, on themes of transformation and cycles of rebirth. Currently an Associate Professor of Music at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, the award-winning Shpachenko is joined by fellow pianist Genevieve Feiwen Lee on this seventy-six-minute collection.

A well-known promoter of contemporary music who's premiered dozens of piano, string piano and toy piano works by Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Iannis Xenakis, and others, Shpachenko is that special musician who possesses the ability to execute technical challenging contemporary works but also bring out the emotional dimension of the material, too. On Woman At The New Piano, she plays piano and percussion, while Feiwen Lee is credited with piano, toy piano, and electronics on two of the album's six compositions.

Like Shpachenko, Tom Flaherty drew upon recent events as inspiration for Airdancing, which is scored for piano, toy piano, and electronics. In his case, it was various images and videos that helped guide the writing, among them Felix Baumgartner's space jump, people cliff-jumping, and a giant squid swimming in its natural habitat. It makes sense, then, that the music composed by Flaherty would translate images of floating, falling, and floating into animated rhythms and sounds of similarly vivid character. In a heavily dance-oriented piece that alternates fluidly between passages of motorik frenzy and (to a lesser degree) calm, it's the arresting combination of piano, toy piano, and electronics that proves to be its most striking quality, though the brilliant splashes of pianistic colour are also memorable. Less animated than Airdancing and more reflective in spirit is Flaherty's other contribution, Part Suite-a (rhymes with “partita”), which follows the intricate “Passacaglialude” with the comparatively serene “Lullabande” and playfully tumultuous “Scherzoid.”

Peter Yates' Finger Songs presents five brief pieces of varying moods (in Yates' own words, they range from “childlike, to adolescent, to aged reflection”), many of them melodic, song-styled, and informed by genres other than classical. Shpachenko renders the jazz-tinged “Mood Swing” with the elegance and poise of a Bill Evans, brings out the joyful jaunt of “Gambol,” rides the ragtime roller-coaster “All Better” with elan, and shows in the tenderly wistful setting “Mysterious Dawn 2” that the most powerful music needn't be loud to have an impact.

Like Finger Songs, Adam Schoenberg's Picture Etudes ranges widely, even if it's more directly programmatic in nature. In this case, the work developed out of a commission Schoenberg received from the Kansas City Symphony and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to write a twenty-first-century Pictures at an Exhibition. As four of the ten movements he wrote were originally conceived as piano etudes and later orchestrated, he was inspired to return to the original material once Picture Studies, the symphonic work, was finished to complete Picture Etudes. Each of the four is based on a specific artwork, and as anyone familiar with Bloch, Miró, Van Gogh, or Kandinsky will have guessed already, the etudes differ markedly in tone and style: “Three Pierrots” is rambunctious and brimming with energy; with the piano augmented by drum accents, “Miró's World” is playful and off-kilter; the impressionistic reverie “Olive Orchard” is romantic, stately, and poignant; and “Kandinsky” amplifies its percussive, Stravinsky-like attack with drum and gong accents. Bounce, Schoenberg's second work on the recording, is an exuberant, eleven-minute piece that was inspired by the impending birth of his first child and written in honour of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (as he originally wrote the ballet for four hands, Schoenberg decided to write Bounce for two pianos first and then orchestrate it). Exuding joy, the light-hearted piece rhythmically rolls along, its chiming chords and melodies buoyed by an insistent ostinato.

The recording's longest single-movement work at fourteen minutes, James Matheson's Cretic Variations derives its unusual title from the ‘cretic foot,' which in poetic meter, consists simply of the stress pattern long-short-long, a versatile pattern that lends itself to any number of treatments, among them playful, melancholy, and spirited. Matheson's kaleidoscopic work exploits the pattern's potential in weaving together complex volleys of rhythms and patterns, all of which are tied in some way to the three-part motif.

Given the involvement of multiple composers, Woman At The New Piano is naturally diverse, yet it's cohesive, too. Though dramatic stylistic contrasts between works emerge, Shpachenko's passionate rendering of the material unifies it on this special recording. Clearly a labour of love (Shpachenko didn't simply receive the composers' works upon completion but was extensively involved in the developmental process), the release is enhanced by extensive liner notes that supply considerable insight into the works presented.

February 2015