CD Review: DONNA VOCE (Anna Shelest, Piano)

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by Tony Frankel on May 27, 2019



Anna Shelest, a New Yorker born in the Ukraine, has not only won me over with her astoundingly dexterous and emotive pianism, but has truly proved herself a whiz at programming her albums. Even if her newest CD, Donna Voce, was not a collection of piano solos by female composers who deserve as much attention as their male contemporaries, I would have been impressed.

Certainly Fanny Mendelssohn (represented by a firecracker rendition of her Sonata in G Minor) and Clara Schumann (a buttery, melodious Scherzo No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 14) have made the rounds in salons these days, but that has more to do, I think, with their relationships to Felix and Robert. While Shelest’s powerful accounts of these pieces is worth the price of admission, the other represented women are eye-openers.

Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade was quite successful from the fin de siècle through WWI — mostly as a composer and performer of her lyrical, melodic salon-style music — but she became largely forgotten after WWI (no doubt because of the bias against women composers). Downright obscure after WWII — she died in 1944 at 86 — I discovered her because I lived on Chaminade Avenue in Los Angeles (my piano teacher didn’t know that my street was named for the famous priest not this pianist). Shelest understands that even with difficult passages, this is a composer who chose to communicate her artistry in slighter and more cherished fashions – that Cécile Chaminade was a musical gardener who grew modest bonsais rather than gargantuan redwoods. Shelest exposes the graceful serenity and playfulness in those fantastic cascading runs in “Les Sylvans (The Fauns)” and the passion, sensitivity and poignancy of two Concert Etudes (Op. 35): “Automne” and “Scherzo.”

Another composer who died in 1944 was the prolific New Englander pianist Amy Beach, who — along with Chaminade — was born into into an upper-class existence. As such, she eventually entered a patriarchal marriage that pooh-poohed public recitals and teaching but allowed composition. (The liner notes are rife with fascinating information.) Throughout her life, Beach wrote more than 150 numbered works – chamber, orchestral, church – with earlier pieces impacted by Brahms and Wagner, such as the languid but fiery “Ballade” Op.6, which Shelest bursts open, peppering Beach’s power and passion with a pastoral flavor. The representation of nature — a true Romantic element — in the Chopinesque “Phantoms” and the Lisztian “Dreaming” (from Four Sketches, Op. 15) is adorned with a technical virtuoso writing that showcases the individuality of Shelest, who doesn’t shy from sentimentalism.

The life of Lili Boulanger — a contemporary of Chaminade and Beach — was cut short by tuberculosis when she was 24. She is known for her exquisite psalms, yet I hadn’t been introduced to either the piece or the author (her older sister was the noted composer and composition teacher Nadia Boulanger), and I must say that this work of harmonics and Debussy-esque cluster chords in the Prelude in D Flat Major is simply lovely, made even more enchanting by Shelest.

While it’s in a zone world’s away from the rest of the album, the most awesome find here is Chia-Yu Hsu’s “Rhapsody Toccata,” winner of the 2017 Left Coast Chamber Ensemble Composition Contest, which drew 125 entries from composers in 13 countries. With demonic force, Shelest concludes her program with this jazzy, driving, accessibly modern 11-minute work from the Taiwan-born Doctor, now an assistant professor of music at UW-Eau Claire. As far from pretentious as most modern music is, this terrific piece leaves you not with jangles nerves but an excited heart.

Anna Shelest: Donna Voce
Sorel Classics
13 tracks | 70:21 | released on May 17, 2019
available on Amazon and iTunes

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