Review by Huntley Dent
SPRATLAN Invasion1. Piano Suite No. 1. Six Rags. Two Sonatas. Wonderer • Nadia Shpachenko (pn); 1Anthony Parnther, cond; 1Pat Posey (sax); 1Aija Mattson‐Jovel (hn); 1Phil Keen (tbn); 1Yuri Inoo (perc); 1Joti Rockwell (man) • REFERENCE 749 (76:00)
The tenor of this exceptional release is set by the personal note from Ukrainian-American pianist Nadia Shpachenko. She begins, “Watching in horror as my home city of Kharkiv was being destroyed, I resolved to express through music my feelings of despair and anger, as well as of hope and resilience.” War is a fraught subject and our response to it complex. Calling upon her friend and sometime collaborator, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan, Shpachenko commissioned Invasion, which is scored for piano and chamber ensemble. My expectations of grim, angry music were overturned by Invasion, whose three sections, lasting 12 minutes, don’t echo the stark bleakness of wartime Shostakovich, or any other war music I can think of. Instead, Spratlan has concocted a dream-like musical experience that looks into a cultural mirror. Menacing drumbeats last only a few seconds before elements of jazz and folk music enter, and the restless piano part adds a layer of frantic but also exciting motion. I kept thinking of the layering of texts in a palimpsest—in this case the layers are simultaneously like Kurt Weill cabaret, drummers marching to war, drunken slip-sliding, a pianist trying to compete with artillery shelling, and the resilience of music-hall song and dance in the face of a black midnight.
What makes Invasion specifically tailored to this release, whose proceeds are being donated to Ukrainian aid relief, is the very absence of unrelieved sorrow, although mournful horn, trombone, and saxophone solos appear prominently in the second part. Shpachenko has filled every page of the booklet with paintings by Ukrainian artists, including the most remarkable creations of children, alongside reflections by these artists on Spratlan’s five works here. The result shines with color and many more rays of hope than despair. Some images reflect the hallucinatory unreality of Putin’s war (in response to Spratlan’s Six Rags for solo piano, Yurii Nagulko writes, “… for some reason the whole world turned blue”).
Invasion, composed in direct response to the war, is one of the first and most fascinating responses to events in Ukraine, and it also represents the incredibly prolific output that Spratlan has exhibited since turning 80 in 2020—the string of recent major commissions listed in his bio is staggering. The remainder of the program is devoted to piano music that is much more abstract and contemporary than Invasion. The knottiness of Six Rags isn’t indicated by its friendly title; there is no relation to jaunty ragtime. Likewise, the Two Sonatas for piano are actually almost epigrammatic at around two and three minutes respectively. We are getting the contemporary equivalent of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives—brief, concentrated miniatures largely based on a single core idea, like the streaming 16th notes racing above a pedal point in the first sonata. Elsewhere, in the last movement of Piano Suite No. 1, Spratlan writes a pastiche Prokofiev waltz that could be dropped into the ballet Cinderella. Here and throughout Shpachenko’s playing is spectacular, constantly swinging from bravura flair to inward reflection as the music demands.
The major piano work, at 20 minutes, is Wonderer, commissioned for Jonathan Biss in 2005. It is a scintillating tour de force that tells us a great deal about Spratlan’s aesthetic, which is encapsulated by a sentence in his bio: “He locates himself solidly in the mainstream of Western Music.” Wonderer could be a play on Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy, because each section meanders through a variety of moods, including a brief snatch of Schubert. There is a Perpetuum mobile juxtaposed to an echo of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The “footsteps of our quizzical Wonderer,” as the program notes deftly put it, lead from idea to idea in a fantasia that is unexpected around the next bend. Appropriately for Biss, who is that rarity, a deeply reflective virtuoso, Spratlan provides as much inwardness as display. The overall effect of Wonderer is exhilarating and emotionally satisfying, to the point where I hope it joins the standard repertoire among contemporary pianists. Shpachenko’s reading is close to ideal in its variety, quick-wittedness, and tenderness.
To touch on other necessary ingredients for success, the ensemble in Invasion plays expertly and is conducted with total assurance and musicality by Anthony Parnther. The faithful, vivid recorded sound is up to Reference Recordings’ exemplary standards. I was moved by the humane intentions behind this album, and yet it would be a shame to overlook Wonderer just because it falls outside the realm of current events. For all their differences, Spratlan has written two remarkable works in both Invasion and Wonderer. Anyone enticed by my descriptions will be amply rewarded listening to this release, which is the outstanding contemporary-music disc of the year. Huntley Dent