It’s Igor Shamo Time!

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SHAMO: Ukrainian Suite. Pictures by Russian Painters. Vesnyanka. Classical Suite. Hutsul Aquarelles. 12 Préludes. Tarasomi dumy. Songs of Friendship. Toccata. Horovodna. Humoresque. 3 Dances. Scherzo. Fantastic March / Dimitri Tchesnokov, pno / Piano Classics PCL10152

That’s right, boys and girls, it’s time once again for the music of Igor Shamo! Who?!? Well, that was my reaction, too. It turns out that Shamo (1925-1982) was a Ukrainian composer who didn’t really get into composing until he was around 20 years old and then didn’t make it to age 60. His music was well enough received that during the 1950s he was invited to come and live in Moscow, but he was attached to the Ukraine and so wouldn’t leave it. In addition to the piano music heard here, Shamo also wrote chamber music, orchestral works and songs in addition to “slumming” in the worlds of movie and theater music. Several of these pieces are world premiere recordings while Pictures by Russian Painters and the 12 Préludes are presented here complete for the first time. Our intrepid pianist of this set, Dimitri Tchesnokov, reconstructed the 3 Dances and Fantastic March in order to create performing editions.

It’s easy to see why Shamo was popular in his time and why he was tapped to write movie music. His language was tonal, and resolutely so, although like his British counterpart York Bowen, he did use some interesting chord positions to color his music, and he had a distinct musical personality. I would say that in some ways he was a simpler, easier-to-digest version of Nikolai Medtner. And like Medtner, he informed his music with a heaping helping of Russian “soul.” His music is quite emotional, not at all cool or cerebral despite its fine construction. In this opening suite he also makes fine use of Ukrainian folk tunes as the basis for his compositions. One of the tunes in the middle of the second piece, “Vesnyanka” (not the same music as the stand-alone piece of the same name), there’s a brief snippet that almost sounds like one of the melodies from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

The Pictures by Russian Painters is, according to the notes, Shamo’s most popular piano suite, yet this is its first complete recording. It has as its general inspiration the similar piano suite by Mussorgsky, but is much shorter at a little over 21 minutes. The painters referred to are Vasily Golikov, Isaac Levitan, Arkady Rylov, Mikhail Nesterov and Boris Kustodiev—all realistic or “representational” painters and thus ones who would be accepted and approved of by the Soviet regime. Despite the vast span of time between the Mussorgsky cycle and his, Shamo’s music inhabits the same harmonic world: in fact, his harmonies are a bit less unusual than Mussorgsky’s, though some of the pieces are indeed interesting.

The separate “Vesnyanka” is not, to my ears, as good as the one from the Ukrainian Suite. The Classical Suite is based on an 18th-century model with some interesting harmonic twists, i.e. in the “Minuet” and “Courante.”

Yet with Hutsul Aquarelles or Hutsulian Watercolors from 1972, we encounter a somewhat different Shamo. Though still grounded in tonality, his music here is more impressionistic and has far more interesting harmonics. It almost sounds like a combination of Medtner and Ravel,  or perhaps Medtner and Koechlin, which is fine by me. The pulse is less regular, almost amorphous, and he explores entirely new nooks and crannies that he either missed or was uninterested in exploring in his earlier works. The liner notes describe the first piece in this cycle, “Sunrise in the Mountains,” as a “free improvisation, occasionally using a dodecaphonic series and some hexaphonic chords.”

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In the second piece, “Musicians ascend a mountain,” he emulates the sound of drums, violin, clarinet and the Trembita, a wind instrument similar to the Alphorn, and again there is a strong French influence, as there is in the delicate “Little Shepherd.” In “Spring Rain,” he does a remarkable job of emulating a growing rumble of thunder before the downpour. No two ways about it, this entire suite is a masterpiece.

Happily, this suite is followed by the 12 Préludes of 1962, which are also excellent. Organized by following the cycle of fifths, it oddly stops halfway through, leaving one to think there would be another 12 preludes to complete it, yet the composer’s daughter explains that it was conceived this way. Unusually, the first prelude in C almost has a slight jazz swagger about it; perhaps Shamo was influenced to some extent by the activities around this time of the younger Nikolai Kapustin, who was playing with jazz orchestras? Once again, Shamo’s essentially Slavic expression is tempered by French harmonies, though not quite to the extent of the Hutsul Aquarelles. Somehow, Shamo managed to make the Prelude No. 3, assigned to G major, almost sound like the minor by use of unusual chord positions and a swirling moto perpetuo that rarely if ever lands on the tonic. Moreover, these preludes have tremendous energy about them which helps hold the listener’s interest. In the sixth prelude, written in b minor, Shamo uses a continuous cascade of notes played by the right hand or perhaps even both hands, since he eliminates the bass line entirely in this piece. But the entire cycle is interesting; there’s so much going on in this music, some of it on a very subtle level, that you need to keep paying attention even when the music sounds quiet and uneventful, as in the very slow Prelude No, 8 in f# minor.

The third and last CD opens with the Tarasovi Dumy, a collection of pieces inspired by the Kobzar of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukraine’s greatest poet and writer. This music, too, is atmospheric and harmonically interesting; as the booklet description of the opening number, “My thought, my thoughts…” puts it, “An inner world, where nothing is spoken but all is being suggested.” Some of the later pieces in this suite are more outward-looking, yet one continues to feel as if Shamo were writing from an inspiration deep within.

The Songs of Friendship, composed in 1954, revert back to Shamo’s simpler style, atmospheric but harmonically simpler and based on folks songs. The first is Czech, the second Polish and the third Romanian. Interestingly, the stand-alone Toccata from 1952 also has a Romanian feel to it and Horovodna also has Eastern European folk music allusions.

Not too surprisingly the 3 Dances, being from 1972, have a few more interesting harmonies (mostly modal) mixed in with their folk style, which in this case are Uzbek, Azerbaijani and Armenian. The undated Scherzo is a cute piece, nothing much to write home about, while the concluding Fantastic March from 1946 (possibly his first work, certainly the one that gained him acceptance into the Kyiv Conservatoire) is a very imaginative piece for its time period, quite bitonal in places.

My overall impression, then, is of a composer heavily influenced by folk music of his own region and those surrounding him (Russian, Czech, Polish) as well as by Medtner and the French impressionists who grew as a composer during the 1960s and ‘70s, which is when most of his really interesting pieces were composed. In all of them, however, Dimitri Tchesnokov plays with both sensitivity and vigor, providing us with about as good an idea of Shamo’s work as we could possibly hope for. Five fish, then, for the performances, but only four for the material because of some of the less interesting works on these three CDs.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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