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CD Review

Nathan Shirley

Marsyas 888295479707

One Hand or Two?

  • Etude for One Hand or Two (Left Hand Only)
  • Dermatophagoides
  • Ballade #3 "Transfiguration"
  • The Injured Toad
  • Ragtime
  • On the River
  • Etude for One Hand or Two (Both Hands)
  • Suite for Piano
  • Vision
  • Haze
  • Mazurka
  • Reflection
  • Struggle
  • Suite for Harpsichord
  • Sacrifice
  • Lament
  • Folk Dance
  • Reanimation
  • Suite for Synthesizer
  • Oblivion
  • Darkness
  • The Return
  • The Lake *
Nathan Shirley, piano, harpsichord & synthesizer
* Ana Carolina Scott, vocal
Marsyas Music 888295479707 79:00
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I first encountered the music of Nathan Shirley back in 2011 when I reviewed his collection of piano works, While Good Folk Sleep, on this same label (Marsyas Music 170423). Later that year I also wrote a notice for the DVD version (Marsyas DVD 170423). On this new CD the works are more varied, both stylistically and in the subject matter the music is related to. The composer supplies very detailed and profuse album notes, revealing much valuable background information on the works on the disc. Thus, the listener is given an inside view of the circumstances involving the composition of each work, as well as its intellectual and emotional characteristics. Moreover, the performances must be regarded as the closest thing to "definitive" as may be humanly possible, since Shirley has excellent keyboard skills and certainly understands his music as virtually no one else can.

You ask now, how good is the music of this still relatively little known composer? First of all, let me say that the works on this as well as on his first disc are generally accessible but never come across as gimcrack or garish in any way, or as imitative. Secondly, Shirley has a clearly recognizable style which, while it may show influences and may at times strike the ear as straightforward and simple, is arguably quite individual. As for the ultimate artistic worth of Shirley's compositions here, I would say the quality is variable, though the better works rise to a high level, making themselves worthy of further attention from performers and listeners alike.

The headline piece is entitled Etude for One Hand or Two – and both versions are performed here of course. The original was written when Mr. Shirley broke his right hand, and after its full recovery he made the second version, for two hands. I prefer the left hand-only rendition, lean and subtle as it is. The two hand version is also good but seems comparatively bloated in some of its sonorities. Portions of the music in the original version carry echoes of the brilliant cadenza near the close of the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand. Dermatophagoides (Skin Eater) is a haunting, dark work of considerable appeal, but stronger yet is the Ballade #3 (Transfiguration), probably the most outstanding piece on the disc. The beautiful main theme is sad yet serene and elegant: while it doesn't sound like Chopin stylistically, that composer's spirit seems to come alive in the piece, reminding you of the beauties of his four Ballades. In the album notes the composer, more or less, suggests as much. But I also hear a few vague echoes of Schubert. The work grows in tension as it proceeds and Shirley notes the music ultimately comes to express a "transfiguration from the mortal to the spiritual world." It is a very moving, very substantive piece.

Ragtime, written when the composer was just nineteen, is catchy and seems to have a few ghosts and goblins lurking. Shirley acknowledges a debt to Prokofiev and Stravinsky (I hear the former, but not the latter so much), but it is still an achievement for such a young composer. On The River, composed when Shirley was twenty, is another good, though slightly less compelling piece.

Suite for Piano contains much fine music too. Vision has a slightly exotic character and is very busy throughout its engrossing four minutes. Haze is worthwhile if less effective in its somewhat chameleonic guises. While you would think the Mazurka would bring Chopin to mind again, it only vaguely does so, and the music is okay, but not outstanding. Reflection and Struggle, however, are both very worthwhile entries to close out this fine set, the latter a cleverly sinister and creepy piece whose music can stick in the mind long after listening.

The Suite for Harpsichord, while reasonably interesting and at times quite inventive, did not come across as convincingly as most of the other music on the CD. Folk Dance sounds earthy and haughty alright, but not particularly distinctive, while Reanimation strikes you as a little stiff and mechanical in places (which, I gather, may be intended) and in the variations the music seems a bit threadbare. Sacrifice, the first piece in the set, is a fairly strong effort in its odd brutality and sense of anger, but Lament fails to impress.

The Suite for Synthesizer opens with the dreamy Oblivion and moves on to the oafish Darkness, with neither piece leaving much of a positive impression, good though a lot of the music is. The synthesized sounds often come across as hokey, artificial. On the piano, both might well take on a more natural guise and rescue the music from its oppressive technological constraints. The Return also suffers from the same encumbrances.

The closing track here contains the song, The Lake, a setting of the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same title. This is very possibly an extremely compelling vocal piece, as the music is rather haunting in its weird darkness, but I think the understated and cooler singing style of Ana Carolina Scott, primarily a jazz singer and songwriter, is a mismatch to the music. This nineteen-year-old vocalist has an attractive voice and most likely possesses the talent for a highly successful career. In the album notes, Shirley suggests that he wanted to give the song a more "modern atmosphere", something he accomplishes, and it also gives the music an otherworldly character as well, which some listeners may find appropriate to Poe's dark text. But the song also becomes oriented toward the Pop/Gothic world somewhat, making it less effective, at least to my ears. An interesting closer, still: some listeners may find it quite to their liking.

The sound reproduction on the disc is reasonably good and as suggested the album notes by the composer are most enlightening. While there are a few misses on this well-filled disc (79 minutes), the good clearly outweighs the mediocre. It's the solo piano pieces that stand out here, and if you're an admirer of contemporary piano music of a conservative nature, this disc should have much to offer.

Copyright © 2017, Robert Cummings