Review: All-Spratlan Album, “Invasion”

Fanfare Archive
By: Colin Clarke

Subtitled “Music and Art for Ukraine,” the sentiments on this disc certainly tap into a profound humanitarianism. If anything will inspire musicians, it is injustice and catastrophe. A selection of paintings by Ukrainian artists adorn the booklet.

Written in March 2022, Invasion for piano with mixed ensemble is Lewis Spratlan’s response to the atrocities. In the booklet notes, it is pointed out that “motives are underlined like obsessions”; and how can that not reflect events? Spratlan’s music is viscerally exciting, a sonic representation of (understandable) anxiety via a preponderance of gesture. The performance is as good as one could imagine. It falls to Shpachenko to present Piano Suite No. 1 (2021), a somewhat Schoenbergian utterance, perhaps particularly in the initial “Capriccio.” Shpachenko truly understands, as does Spratlan, the expressive nature of dissonance, while “Dirge” takes a bass melody, constantly repeating it a semitone higher; when the melody arrives in the treble, it morphs into an ostinato. The final “Pastorale” is a kind of mild moto perpetuo, cheeky in Shpachenko’s account, that contains all sorts of surprises; there are moments of purest beauty, too.

The piece is remarkably charming, as are the Six Rags (all composed in 2018). There’s no missing the rag element, and each of these is inspired by features of the New England landscape. One might call this advanced rag composition, perhaps especially in the depths of the second, “Speck Pond Rag,” where one might find hints of a slowed down “Shrovetide Fair” (Petrushka) or perhaps, a touch later, hints of Mussorgsky’s Pictures. This is a remarkable set of miniatures, played brilliantly by Shpachenko, who understands exactly when to bring back the innocence of ragtime within a far deeper context (Rag No. 3, “Mahoossuc Notch Rag”); and now Spratlan so expertly juxtaposes the two. This set is worthy of investigation by pianists on the hunt for new repertoire; it has the kind of depth that I have not heard since William Bolcom’s Rags (Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion). The start of “Chesterfield Gorge Rag,” the final one, might come as a surprise: it sounds to my ears like late Liszt. How Shpachenko understands these differing moods. That final rag is a staggering achievement compositionally, and Spratlan has a fierce proponent in Shpachenko.

The Two Sonatas again defy expectations. While one might expect grand statements, their durations are just under two minutes and just under three and a half respectively, with the first one full of deliciously pecking staccato. Here we are, as the booklet notes reflect, close to the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, as a pecking Presto is followed by a wistfully dissonant offering simply marked Gentle. Here, we hear from the booklet notes that the waltz reminds Nadia of “watching videos of graduating seniors dancing in the ruins of their high school in Kharkiv.”

Finally, there comes Wonderer, which takes us to another world. At some 21 minutes long (less three seconds) this 2005 piece initially offers more insight: fast repeated notes are no longer “pecking” but generators of energy. We are some 17 years before Invasion; this is an extended “pre-echo” of that later piece. The idea of the wanderer is archetypal. One only need think of Wotan as Wanderer in Wagner’s Ring, or, for those so inclined, of The Hermit in the tarot. While there is no denying the visceral effect of Invasion, my ears tell me this is the deeper piece, as it calls on collective memory. Spratlan’s virtuosity in moving between tonal references (as memory) and spikier, post-Prokofiev toccata is fascinating, and Shpachenko’s virtuosity in realizing this ideal is remarkable. This is a terrific performance of a wonderful piece; it is worth hearing this disc for Wonderer alone.

Peter Yates’s booklet notes are a model of their kind. These are all world premiere recordings, making this an invaluable release. All the performers (primarily Shpachenko) are magnificent; the music absolutely is worth hearing; and the booklet is almost a work of art in itself. A word, finally, is due for the engineers. Piano recordings are notoriously hard to make, but Shpachenko is caught beautifully. Recommended unhesitatingly. 

Read the original on Fanfare Archive.

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