Blue Silence: Complete Works for String Quartet by Elena Kats-Chernin

Acacia Quartet
Classical, New Music
Vexations 840 - 1202 (2 CDs)
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2014

An audacious project for a first CD for this new ensemble—to record the entire output for string quartet by the one contemporary Australian composer—but Elena Kats-Chernin has achieved public recognition in a way not seen by Australian composers since Peter Sculthorpe in the 1960s or John Antill in the 1950s. This recognition has been built by the production of a huge catalogue of works in a broad range of styles and instrumentations, constant support within a range of media (radio, film, theatre, art events), and the composer’s innate skill to create works that performers want to play and that the audience wants to hear!

Beginning her musical education in the Soviet Union, she became one of a cohort of composers studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music under Richard Toop which included Michael Smetanin, Ricardo Formosa, Gerry Brophy and others. She complemented that experience with fourteen years in Germany working in theatre, spending some time studying with Helmut Lachenmann. With such an experience working with modernist and experimentalist role models, one might expect more evidence in her composition, as can be seen in the work of other composers of her cohort. However, a love for novelty and the avoidance of the obvious is never far from her work, lending it a unique quirkiness that tempers the simplicity of her expression.

Although her output includes a broad range of instrumentation from large to small, Kats-Chernin describes herself as a miniaturist, with many many works for solo piano or small ensembles. The majority of pieces in this collection are well shy of the four minute mark, and many are derived from dance in one form or another, a feature of much of Lachenmann’s works—even though his sound world is vastly different, largely based as it is on extended instrumental techniques.

The speed of her work is prodigious, probably a combination of her rigorous training (Andrew Ford has described her as ‘without a doubt the best-trained composer in Australia’) and the commercial pressures enforced by a difficult family situation. She has become a pragmatist par excellence, and constantly revises older works to fit new situations. Many of the pieces in this collection have had earlier or subsequent implementations.

There is no doubt that this pragmatism has shaped her creative decisions, but having such a broad palette of training and experience has allowed her to move between different genres while staying in touch with her various musical passions, and these are in evidence in the pieces of this collection: Scriabin, Ravel, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Piazzola, . . . 

Her primary instrument is the piano, both for composition and for performance, and this can be clearly heard in her writing for string quartet with a predominance of homophonic scoring.

Two pieces in this collection are particularly well-known, both in Australia and internationally. Russian Rag, first titled as Why Not?, has had at least seven different orchestrations, from larger ensemble to solo piano, before this rendering for string quartet. It will be familiar to many in Australia from Phillip Adams’ show on Radio National, Late Night Live, where it was the theme music for a decade, supplanting a J S Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe (3rd mov’t, BWV 1060). The arrangement most commonly used by Adams, referred to fondly as the Waltz of the Wombats, featured a seemingly-drunken trombone with much portamento. This quartet arrangement shares the same frivolity, but gains a sense of Viennese grandeur.

‘Eliza’s Aria’, from the ballet Wild Swans and first recorded by soprano Jane Sheldon with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, achieved international notoriety through its inclusion in a series of television ads for Lloyds Bank in Great Britain. In Australia, Phillip Adams also has used the recording to replace the Russian Rag as the theme for his radio program. Although a doddle to play on piano, the wordless arpeggiated melody is fiendishly difficult to sing, lending a sense of fragility to the soprano line. I believe it is this fragility that adds to the striking nature of the piece, and its international success. This string quartet arrangement lacks that fragility, and I feel it will appeal mainly to fans of the piece.

Quite strikingly different from the rest of the collection in mood is the title piece, Blue Silence, which was written originally for cello and piano for a book launch and exhibition by artists with schizophrenia.

While melancholy is an important part of the emotional palette of the collection, the majority maintain a mischievous playfulness, driven by the dance-like rhythms that run throughout.

The performance throughout the CD is exemplary and the recording nicely captures this, although a few less-than-transparent edits perhaps reveal a slightly rushed recording. The four players have responded well to the challenge of this highly varied material and have created an important document. This is a highly enjoyable collection of works from an important composer. Highly recommended!

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