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Elena Kats-Chernin’s new collection of 26 pieces, titled Unsent Love Letters, has recently been published by Boosey & Hawkes, with a full recording by concert pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska released worldwide on the Deutsche Grammophon label.
In this review I will be considering both products and reacquainting myself with the music of one of my favourite living composers…
From the Piano Village
Last year I wrote a review of composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s outstanding Piano Village collection, concluding:
“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.”
These words more than proved themselves when, in the Autumn, I gave a charity Piano Recital in Milton Keynes and decided to include two of the pieces from Piano Village in my own performance, alongside works by Louis Couperin, Mozart, Schumann and Erik Satie.
How ironic, that having juxtaposed Elena Kats-Chernin’s pieces with Erik Satie in that recital, her new collection Unsent Love Letters is primarily an homage to that eccentric genius. According to the cover of the book,
“Found in Satie’s Parisian apartment after his death were dozens of love letters that he had never sent off. Elena Kats-Chernin now sends these letters – in 26 meditative and passionate piano miniatures.”
In this short promotional video, the composer herself outlines her vision for the collection:
Inside the cover of the publication, Elena writes:
“Satie was a complicated, funny, talented man. I have loved him from the first note I ever heard. This book is both a tribute to him and a series of thoughts and ideas that he has inspired in me over the years. These pieces are intimate, some are questions, some are feelings. Many started as a one-bar meditation written down as an afterthought …”
Boosey & Hawkes have presented this collection following the same outstanding design ethos as the previous Piano Village book.
The cover artwork is by Elena herself, presented with the same glossy finish. The inside front cover includes Elena’s message quoted above, together with her photograph. The book content amounts to 84 pages, printed beautifully on cream paper, and with excellent binding.
The notation is edited by the pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska and Daniel Pekala-Speer. Unlike Piano Village, few of the pieces here include dynamics or articulation, and performance directions are thin on the ground. Tempo markings are replaced with mood indicators, and these tend to be very open-ended rather than prescriptive, just as in Erik Satie’s compositions. Fingering is also left entirely to the performer (teachers: take note).
As Tamara-Anna Cislowska writes in her excellent Preface:
In editing this collection it became clear early on that Elena really wanted to echo the freedoms, spontaneity and autonomy to the performer that Satie respected and followed in his own writing… I have maintained this approach in the editing process, to further advance the intention of the composer that the music be presented as a blueprint for what it may become, rather than prescribed.”
The titles of the included works are:
- Love token
- Unsent love letters
- Behind your pearls
- Le chat noir
- Threads of grey velvet
- Garden gothique
- Very shiny
- Absinthe cocktail
- The gymnast
- One table, one chair
- Imaginary building
- Piano tower
- Modern romantic
- Maple in the evening
- Tuesday suit
- Wonder about yourself
- Postcard to a critic
- Dance in 7/4
- For whom it tolls
Many of these titles of course have specific resonances with the life and writings of Satie, and as we shall see, his musical influence is also to the forefront in these pieces.
In addition to the Preface (in English and German) and the pieces themselves, the book is interspersed with original drawings by the composer and examples of her hand-written scores.
The book is completed by two pages of Composer’s Notes at the back, which are succinct, informative and inspiring.
The pieces in this collection are marked by simplicity, but often have far more significant depth and expressive potential than is initially obvious. As an example, listen to the collection’s title piece, Unsent love letters, here performed (on a rather gorgeous piano!) by Tamara-Anna Cislowska:
This piece contains the performance direction “with an open heart” but without any further indications of tempo, dynamics, pedalling or articulation. And yet the harmonic shifts here are deeply suggestive, suggesting enormous expressive potential. My advice to players is to experiment here, and wonderful though this performance unquestionably is, don’t use the video as a template of how to interpret the piece.
Speaking of experimenting, some of the pieces in the collection include two right hand staves, with the instruction (given in piece number 4, Le chat noir, but presumably applying throughout):
“Either treble line may be performed or any combination of the two.”
This is a novelty which will immediately challenge players who habitually cling to notation too literally – but it is great to have the opportunity to experiment within the pieces. In the recordings, which I will come back to later, the alternatives are usually both included, using recorded overdubs.
As a collection, Unsent Love Letters offers a more singular mood than Piano Village, in which I complemented the fabulous variety. However, while a sense of calm dominates here, there is still plenty of contrast in the tone of each piece. Together they form an extraordinary tapestry that goes far beyond an homage to Erik Satie and rather channels his musical spirit, but without ever losing sight of Elena Kats-Chernin’s own distinctive personality. It is a high-wire act, pulled off with stunning success.
Take Absynthe cocktail as a fine example of this:
Notice the sense of timelessness set up from the start. What do you think the time-signature is here? Is it the 3/4 of Satie’s Gymnopèdies or rather the 4/4 of his Gnossiennes?
What Elena has done here is combine a cross-rhythm between the hands, notated in 4/4, but certainly ambiguous to the listener. Meanwhile the right hand melody, when it appears, is infused with the exoticism that will be familiar to all who love the Gnossiennes. And yet this is no mere pastiche, and would not be mistaken for Satie: make no mistake that there is a different musical intelligence at work, and an aesthetic that is comfortably at home in the 21st century.
Happily from an educational point of view, the level of these pieces is around ABRSM Grade 3-6, and predominantly around Grade 4. This brings Elena Kats-Chernin’s music to a new audience of players less advanced than is needed to tackle the pieces in Piano Village – in fact a player could well start with Unsent Love Letters and progress to Piano Village as they advance.
Two points to note about this levelling though. Firstly, even the easier pieces really need legato pedalling, perhaps making them less suitable for the youngest players at this level. And secondly, that development of a personal response and interpretation needs to be at the forefront of the player’s focus, which must be borne in mind when digging into the collection.
Reviewing Piano Village I noted that the 2CD release Butterflying from ABC Classics included many of the same pieces as the book, but didn’t duplicate the programme, either in terms of the pieces included, nor in terms of their performances replicating the versions in the sheet music publication.
In the case of Unsent Love Letters however, the two products are an identical match in terms of their content. The 26 pieces fill around 1 hour and 16 minutes, sublimely performed once again by Tamara-Anna Cislowska.
These are deeply musical performances, sympathetically recorded – indeed, the CD album could and should be one of the year’s best-sellers in my view.
First impressions suggest that these pieces speak with a musical language which has perhaps become over-popular.
However, Elena Kats-Chernin manages here to successfully and successively transcend any potentially hackneyed tropes to produce compositions that are at once both familiar and fresh, evoking a longing and sense of nostalgia that goes far beyond their anticipated scope.
In short, the music throughout this collection is hauntingly beautiful. These aren’t simply pieces which I will enjoy listening to and teaching in the coming months – this is music which I anticipate loving and playing for the rest of my life.
Unsent Love Letters is an extraordinary achievement.
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