Saturday, September 18, 2021

US composer Judith Shatin's "Chai Variations on Eliahu HaNavi" (1995) performed by pianist Nathan Carterette

Judith Shatin (Sarah Cramer)
Nathan Carterette (Barry Phipps)

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of hearing a recently-composed piano work by US composer Judith Shatin - "Chai Variations on Eliahu HaNavi"- performed by Nathan Carterette (US) and appearing on his disc "Poets of the Piano: Acts of Faith''. All the works on this CD were inspired by religious experience, albeit in the widest sense. Released online, the video film of "Chai Variations on Eliahu HaNavi'' is preceded by a discussion between composer and pianist. Judith Shatin is renowned for her richly imagined acoustic, electroacoustic and digital music, her daring, vivid sound world, her fine structural design and her text settings. Here, Shatin takes a well-known Jewish liturgical song "Elijah the Prophet", traditionally sung at the end of the Sabbath, its simple but haunting melody presenting the following text: 

"Elijah the prophet,

Elijah the Tishbite,

Elijah the Gileadite.

May he soon (in our days) come to us

With the Messiah, son of David."


Composed when Shatin was in residence at the Brahmshaus in Baden-Baden (Germany) in the summer of 1995, the work was first recorded by Mary Kathleen Ernst for the Innova label. A fascinating aspect of this piece is that Shatin, pursuing a different level of collaboration with the artist, leaves the order of the 18 (chai, in Hebrew means "living", also standing for number 18) variations to the pianist, the set of variations framed by statements of the theme. This creates an enormous number of possibilities, the scheme somewhat bordering on open form, even on improvisation. 


A classical pianist, trained at Yale University and in private study in Munich, Germany, Nathan Carterette has performed worldwide and is known for his performances of Bach, his work with composers of today and his educational initiative “Poets of the Piano.” As to the concept of Shatin's work, this was new and challenging to Carterette, demanding much experimenting on his part. He aims to find a fine balance between variations in which the melody is "in the foreground" and those that are somewhat more abstract.  His own order of the variations has led him to lining them up in groups of three. Indeed, they are character variations, each bearing a title referring to a human disposition - such as "Light-hearted", "Whimsical", "Sly", "Yearning" - or a more visual association - "Dark", "Flowing", "Shining" etc. And the work is basically tonal, its occasionally deviant, enriching, coloristic touches never losing sight of the song's minor tonality. So, is this program music? I think the answer to that is more subjective than objective, depending on performer and listener. As someone familiar with the Bible, Carterette views the piece as an exegesis, perhaps a sermon, delving deeply into Elijah's personality and the Elijah story itself. Carterette sweeps the listener into Shatin's vivid world of melodiousness, the richness of her textures and her imaginative use of registers, as he performs each small, wonderfully-crafted variation so sensitively, giving expression to its emotional content via strategic timing and deep personal involvement. Judith Shatin writes superbly for the piano. Nathan Carterette's profound and poetic performance of "Chai Variations on Eliahu HaNavi" is memorable.