Sheet Music Review
Elena Kats-Chernin (born 1957) is an Australian composer, originally from Uzbekistan (at the time part of the Soviet Union). Kats-Chernin has won numerous prizes, and her music was featured in the opening ceremony’s of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Her output includes 6 operas, the popular ballet Wild Swans, numerous orchestral and instrumental works, film scores and a large amount of piano music.
Piano Village brings together 25 of her piano solos in a single gorgeously presented volume recently published in the UK by Boosey & Hawkes. And it’s a stunning book.
The beautiful and striking cover artwork certainly sets the scene for a book that is a delight from start to end. Presented with high quality values, the 104 pages are printed on cream paper, excellently engraved with staves and notation well spaced. An effort was obviously made to avoid awkward page turns, with these coinciding with section breaks as far as possible.
The inside cover includes a short welcome message and photograph of the composer, and there is a longer Preface written by editor Tamara-Anna Cislowska. And then it is straight to the pieces themselves, which are:
- Lullaby for Nick
- Naive Waltz
- Slicked Back Tango
- Russian Rag in A minor
- Green Leaf Prelude
- Eliza Aria
- Cocktail Rag
- Revolving Doors
- Second Door on the Left
- Fast Blue Village
- Kate Waltz
- Waltz of Things Past…
- Russian Toccata
- April Code
- Dance of the Paper Umbrellas
- Blue Tears
- The Rain Puzzle
- Black Tie
You will no doubt realise from this list that the music covers not only a wide range of moods, but also an appealing mix of musical styles.
The book concludes with brief background notes (provided in both English and German) written by the composer herself, introducing each piece and providing some context.
The inside rear cover advertises the 2CD recording Butterflying, available separately from ABC Classics. The recording features 30 works performed by the book editor Tamara-Anne Cislowska, joined by the composer for some duets. Butterflying is also available as a digital download from iTunes, and is considerably less expensive as such.
It is worth noting that although the two products have appeared at around the same time, and with similarly beautiful presentation, the 25 pieces from the book don’t all appear on the recording; nor do all the solo pieces from the recording appear in the book. And the book does not include any of the duets.
In fact the recordings on the 2CD Butterflying set are in some cases quite different versions of the works to those published in Piano Village. I mention this because I would unreservedly recommend the excellent recording as a companion to the score, but it’s important to note that they are not intended specifically to tie in with each other.
The different versions of the same pieces perhaps highlights the improvisational quality of Elena Kats-Chernin’s approach as a composer and performer. In an interview published on the Boosey & Hawkes website, she says:
“All the pieces in Piano Village are special to me in some way: they are moments in my life, feelings, people or ideas…
When I am at the piano I try to let my hands travel wherever they will and through this improvisation all my pieces get born, sometimes in one big throw like for Eliza Aria, and sometimes it takes a lot longer. I’ve had musical sketches sitting around my house for weeks, even months before I realise what piece it really should be. That is always a good day.”
Phew! With all that product information out of the way, I’m guessing that what you really want to know about is the pieces themselves! So here goes..
The cover singles out Eliza Aria, Fast Blue Village and Butterflying as particular highlights, so I started by having a play of those. Eliza Aria, originally from Elena’s ballet Wild Swans, will be immediately recognisable to UK readers as the music used in the famous Lloyds TSB television adverts from a few years back. Remember this one?
The piano solo version is exactly as you would expect, and will hugely appeal to players who enjoy playing those pieces by Einaudi, Yirumi and others which have burrowed their way so persistently into public consciousness. From a teaching point of view, however, I would say that the music here is considerably more detailed and rooted in classicism, and as a player I found Eliza Aria more rewarding that the aforementioned composers’ works.
Butterflying, meanwhile is one of those happy pieces that sounds virtuosic to the casual listener, but which lies brilliantly under the pianist’s fingers. A joy to play, and I have no doubt this will be a firm favourite in concerts where it is performed. In fact, I have added both Butterflying and Eliza Aria to my own 2016 Recital programme for lighter relief.
Fast Blue Village is essentially a toccata in 5/4 time, another showcase piece that will appeal to players and audiences alike. And pieces such as the Slicked Back Tango, the Ragtime pieces and Russian Toccata are similarly impressive. There’s also some slower, more contemplative pieces such as the lovely Lullaby for Nick, Naive Waltz and Chorale.
In terms of level, the publishers describe the book as for “intermediate to advanced” players. I would say that the majority of pieces are around ABRSM Grades 6-8 level.
This is great news – because it is precisely the level where so many of the most appealing contemporary collections drop off. For players who neither want to switch to advanced jazz playing, nor want to limit themselves exclusively to playing more serious classical music, this book is a perfect fit.
I am confident that in the coming years this is a collection I will frequently return to, and that many of my teenage and adult students will immediately connect with Elena Kats-Chernin’s imaginative musical world. The fact that the pieces are so varied, so inventive, and above all so pianistic, is a huge advantage in recommending the collection as a whole.
In short, I would say that these pieces are a valuable addition to the repertoire. There is a significant and important niche that Piano Village fills, and it does so with genuine class and style.