A Rhapsodic Tour of Ukraine Past and Present

Ukrainian pianists Anna and Dmitri Shelest were both twelve years old when they met at the Kharkiv Special Music School in Ukraine. Now they’re married, and they join forces for a tour of Ukrainian music for WCRB’s CD of the Week!

Anna Shelest admits that playing one piano with another person can feel like an invasion of a very private space. There’s a lot involved in finding the right choreography while going after the infinite details that bring everything into focus. But it helps if the other player is your life partner. Dmitri Shelest told one interviewer that “being married simplifies our collaboration. If Anna hears that my left hand is uneven, she will tell me to fix it, without having to worry about insulting my self-esteem.”

While their new recording of Ukrainian music features plenty for just one pianist (Anna), there is real charm in the four-hand pieces they’ve chosen. Myroslav Skoryk is one of the most prominent living Ukrainian composers, and while he has written operas, cantatas, and concertos, his Three Extravagant Dances are a sensual, fun-loving collection with occasional pop-up tunes by famous composers blended into delicious atmospheres and peppered with Ukrainian folk elements. The first is an Entrance and Dance which he calls “Almost Spanish-Moorish;” the second is a Blues (“Almost American”); and the third a Can-Can, subtitled “as from an Old Gramophone Plate,” implying the charm of a malfunctioning record player. The Duo obviously loves these pieces. They also play together in an arrangement of Mykola Lysenko’s dramatic Overture to his opera Taras Bulba.

The CD opens with Lysenko’s Suite on Ukrainian Themes. It’s a collection of darkly lit baroque dances modeled after Bach, but with the echoes of Ukrainian folk music coloring every gesture. Anna Shelest plays them with intensity, and especially highlights the starkness of the Sarabande. She also plays alone in The Ukrainian Rhapsody by Alexander Zhuk, the piece that gives the album its name. This is another patchwork of Ukrainian folk songs, but worked into a lush, virtuosic outpouring.

The Preludes by Levko Revutsky are solo piano miniatures steeped in the melting harmonic world of the early 20th century. Anna plays them with an innate understanding of their liquidity and melancholy turbulence.

These pieces may very well be brand new to you, but some of them will haunt you after hearing them just a few times. It’s a refreshing album played with finesse and love.

Listen to a track from Ukrainian Rhapsody:

Watch a performance of the Shelest Piano Duo:

To purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.