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Chamber of Horrors

Chamber music by Elena Kats-Chernin

$23   (Australian dollars)


buy at: AMC - Buywell - iTunes

Tall Poppies Records is proud to present this CD of chamber music by one of Australia’s favourite composers: Elena Kats-Chernin.

A distinguished cast of Australian musicians plays works written for them, on commission. All the music is strong, always optimistic, never dull! Elena Kats-Chernin is fresh from her success on stage with the score for the ballet Wild Swans for Meryl Tankard and the recent ballet Amalgamate for the Bangarra Dance Theatre with the Australian Ballet.

This is the 33rd single-composer chamber music CD in the Tall Poppies catalogue.

Charlston Noir for 4 basses (1996)The Four Basses:
Kees Boersma, Damien Eckerlsey, Alex Henery, Kirsty McCahon
Chamber of Horrors (1995)Alice Giles, blue harp
Still Life (2001)Patricia Pollett, viola; Patricia Pollett, piano
Wild Rice (1996)
David Pereira, cello
Gypsy Ramble (1996) Perihelion:
Patricia Pollett, viola; Nicholas Bochner, cello; Carson Dron, piano
Velvet Revolution for horn trio (1999)
Tall Poppies Ensemble:
Hector McDonald, horn; John Harding, violin; Ian Munro, piano.


Chamber of Horrors is a CD of compositions by Elena Kats-Chemin. Don't let the CD title frighten you, there are no horrors within, just modern classical compositions including a piece for bass quartet entitled Charleston Noir. Charleston Noir is appropriately playful with a dark edge: often the emphasis is on rhythm, yet there are some lovely lyrical moments. This delightful piece (especially some of the acrobatics high on the neck) is well-played by the quartet, whose members are Kees Boersma, Kirsty McCahon, Alex Henery. Damien Eckersley. Additionallv the CD has pieces for solo blue harp (the title cut); viola and piano: viola, cello and piano; horn trio; and a very cool piece for solo cello, which we all agree would sound even better on bass (insert smiley here). Bass-centric joking aside, Kats-Chernin's writing and Chamber of Horrors make for good listening.
Chris Kosky
International Society of Bassists, vol 32, no 2

As with all good music, the works recorded on Elena Kats-Chernin's CD Chamber of Horrors operates on several levels: traditional anchorage, contemporary flair, integration of different styles and genres, rhythmic and formal continuity, appeal to emotion, display of virtuosity, and compositional craft. Regarding tradition, the selection of her chamber works has its grounding clearly in Western art music. This applies to Chernin's extremely competent instrumental writing, which speaks of a deep knowledge of playing techniques and sound production, even when the music explores more unusual timbres and textures. It applies equally to her secure use of tonal, goal-directed harmony, and her uncomplicated and often lyrical melodic writing. With the majority of works on this CD, rhythm appears as the strongest, most convincing parameter. There is rarely a moment when the music does not articulate a metric structure and display an engaging surface rhythm; and when moments of less rhythmic activity do occur (as for example at 4:30 of the first track -- Charleston Noir), they always feel like a formally well-placed repose adding contrast to the musical narrative.

An exception to the emphasis on regular rhythms, and also the CD's most intricate and beautiful work in terms of timbre and gesture, is Kats-Chernin's solo for harp --Chamber of Horrors -- from which the CD receives its title. It should be said at this point that neither the harp solo nor the CD as a whole deserve to be even remotely associated with the idea of horror, but as the composer points out in the CD booklet, the title was conceived before the music was written. Kats-Chernin also explains that Chamber of Horrors was recorded with a Blue Harp, which according to Google is an electro-acoustic pedal harp. Possibly because of the electro-acoustic nature of the instrument, the recording sounds closely mic-ed, resulting in a pleasantly intimate feel. At about three minutes into the recording I could hear an electronic delay and suspect there are other spots where delay was used (although Alice Giles's pristine performance could suggest that she plays these repeats herself). I found that this attention to studio production added significantly to the aesthetic enjoyment of the piece.

The other solo work on this CD is Wild Rice for cello, beautifully played by David Pereira. For the most part it sounds like a fragmented ancient chant that replaces Western expressiveness and thematic development with an almost tribal presence. At 4:06 the music begins to articulate a very basic and incessant col legno pulse that strikes me as uncharacteristically harsh for Kats-Chernin's music and briefly reminded me of her composition teacher Helmut Lachenmann.

The last piece on the CD -- Velvet Revolution -- has an air of film music about it and I suspect this can not be fully rationalised with reference to the composer's program. As for the program itself, it probably works best as a compositional device rather than a successful portrayal of political events (the third movement - 'Jump' -- appears to have little to do with the tragedy of Berlin Wall victims).

For this reviewer, much of the CD speaks of a fundamental happiness and a positive outlook on life. This is the case even when the music temporarily moves into seemingly darker territories. These excursions into musical analogies of sadness, anxiety, and tension are more convincing as formal devices, adding to the drama of the musical narrative, and less persuasive as genuinely felt expressions of life's harsher and often arbitrary realities. Speaking in terms of musical form and compositional approach, Kats-Chernin's work derives much of its appeal from the juxtaposition of discrete ideas, rather than a potentially more complex superimposition or integration of diverse materials. The resulting directness of Kats-Chernin's musical language goes a long way in explaining her wonderful success, of which this CD is no exception.
Thomas Reiner
Music Forum May 07

The six works here weren't written or recorded as a single project, but have an equivalence of melody and sonority as marked as differences in concept and instrumentation. Taking charge of the title piece lends solo harpist Alice Giles no special status on its own account, but does give her the opportunity to sound like several Alice Gileses playing simultaneously, Her virtuosity is remarkable, and that's shared by the fine cast of players answering Kats-Chernin's summons. Four double basses chug together locomotively on a track that gives the artists enough distance to cock their snooks at Bottesini, although the thought trails behind that perhaps the bass never really came into its own until the jazz age came along. It's a thought encouraged by the work called Wild Rice, which typifies Kats-Chernin's segueing across the boundaries between one instrument and another, much in evidence here. Her cover notes explicitly describe each individual track, but any one of them could make sense as a collective title. Or perhaps none of them. Would a CD called Velvet Revolution attract as much attention as one called Chamber of Horrors? There are no catchy tunes here, more crystallisations of sound that glitter momentarily for the listener with some patience and fortitude. A CD with a fun name and playful ideas, but serious music.
Phil Vendy
Limelight October 2006

Two CDs by a prominent young Australian composer, showing imagination and confidence, without straying far from a minimalist predeliction. Tall Poppies is an enterprising label, devoted to Australian composers and performers, and their catalogue is well worth checking out. You will find some names familiar in UK and Europe, but many others scarcely known here; humbling! .

Of these, a decided preference and strong recommendation for the mixed chamber music disc. Kats-Chernin describes herself as a survivor from the ruthless tuition of Lachenmann, to whom she is grateful although emerged so chastened that she stopped composing for some years, latterly settling for "a sort of post-modern 'light music', more obviously so in the piano disc.

Lots of originality in exploring unusual instruments and combinations in Chamber of Horrors (a striking double bass quartet as opener; Alice Giles' midi- harp has interesting sonorities) and there are substantial items for viola and solo cello (some of these brought together from other CDs in the Tall Poppies catalogue).

Presentation is generally good, with full information about all the participants; the guillotine nearly missed cutting the pages correctly for the piano disc, with several Rags after Joplin, it all slightly too relaxed for my taste.
© Peter Grahame Woolf, August 2006

This is a very nicely programmed CD. Some of the pieces have already appeared on Tall Poppies, so if the titles Still Life and Wild Rice look strangely familiar then this is why. Elena Kats-Chernin has an attractive mix of energy and fun on offer, with enough darker moments to stimulate the little grey cells. Born in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, she studied for a while in Moscow, her family emigrating to Australia in 1975. She lived and worked in Germany for 13 years, and returned to Australia in 1993.

So, what do four double-basses sound like? In Charleston Noir they might sound like four cellos to the uninitiated – Kats-Chernin using the higher registers to project pulsing harmonies for those dance rhythms. It’s only when you get that deep ‘whoom’ in the bass, or an improbably low and resonant pizzicato that you really gain that full bull-fiddle impact. In the low registers it is almost impossible to make a bass sound melodious, and ensemble The Four Basses do well to make the whole thing sound mostly in-tune in the high. There are some great fun moments in this piece, and the improbable instrumentation actually suits the idiom of a Charleston style piece very well.

Chamber of Horrors, the title track, is an impressive study in harp textures and resonances – written fairly conventionally, but treated electronically in order to heighten some of the cinematic spooky effects. If you’ve never heard vibrato in a harp note, then you will here, and there are some sharp shifts in perspective and strange echoes which extend the closely recorded strings – almost giving you the impression that you’re playing the piece yourself!

Still Life is written in six short movements. The first brings out the viola in a melancholy melody underscored by nicely written chordal figures in the piano – largely in the high register, but bowing down for an impressive climax. The second movement is a virtuosic, almost folk-like movement based of the interval of a fifth, with some grand romantic gestures toward the end. The third introduces more jazzy rhythms and a bluesy feel, the fourth a pizzicato reflection over a chaconne-like chorale in the piano. With movement no.5 forceful and tango-like in turns, we’re given the contrast between life and death with the funereal sixth movement, which brings us full circle, introducing material from the 1st movement at its conclusion. This is a piece with ‘legs’ which would fit superbly in any viola/piano duo recital.

Gypsy Ramble was written for the ensemble which plays it here, Perihelion. Strikingly rhythmic, but with those searching harmonic gestures which Kats-Chernin does so well, the opening leads us into an impressive set of variations from which the Russian flavour of the initial theme is never quite absent – even when in full tango mode.

Wild Rice was written for David Pereira. Already impressed with his recent solo outing on Tall Poppies, Electric Cello (TP180), I was glad to hear his deeply resonant and expressive cello sound being explored to the full. The composer combines ‘the evocative high register of the cello with its percussive low counterpart’, and the effect is sustained and intense, the resonant studio acoustic almost artificially reinforcing some of the double stops, which sometimes approach the effect of an entire string orchestra.

Grand effect and gesture are also an aspect of the opening of Velvet Revolution, another sis movement piece in which permutations of the horn trio’s forces are rotated. Living in Berlin at the time of the fall of the wall, the composers own experiences resolved the problem of writing for a combination already stamped by the personalities of Brahms and Ligeti. ‘I was concerned with the portrayal of constant change, but not… in a programmatic sense but rather as an emotional portrait of the people and the circumstances.’ This charged and impressive work lives up to all expectations, and must be as satisfying to study and perform as it should be to experience as an audience.

It almost goes without saying that all the works here are beautifully performed and recorded, having a unity which dispels any doubts created by the ‘compilation’ nature of this CD. I have been most pleasantly surprised, impressed, moved and challenged by the work of Elena Kats-Chernin. Her musical language keys directly into the human scale of emotions, being stirring and uplifting without being sentimental: tough and uncompromising without resorting to aversion-therapy atonality or over-use of special effects. If her pieces were books, they would be the nice leather-bound ones with the really good stories – ones which you know you want to keep available for reference or recreation, and which you know will last forever.
Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International
October 2006

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