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Music Review: Shirley Kirsten – A Musical Journey: Scarlatti, Schubert, & Chopin

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Not only have the Internet, mp3s, downloadable music, and new compression methods revolutionized the production, marketing, and distribution of newly-minted popular music and jazz, they have also done the same for classical music. A case in point is Left-Coast pianist, maestro, and self-described piano finder Shirley Kirsten. Kirsten has just released her third self-produced recital of piano pieces, A Musical Journey: Scarlatti, Schubert, & Chopin that follows the previously released Musical Enchantment and Inspiration. While the combination and proportion of the eras represented on this disc is curious, multiple listening go a long way in supporting Kirsten’s method and vision

Shirley Kirsten studied in New York City with Lillian Freundlich and in the Wild West with Ena Bronstein. One of her most significant influences has been pianist Murray Perahia with whom she attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (H.S. 485) located near the Juilliard School in the Lincoln Center district of Manhattan. This high school is also noted for having produced the likes of conductors Gerard Schwarz and David Zinman, pianists Joshua Rifkin and Steven Lubin and jazz musicians Bill Charlap, Eddie Danials, Marcus Miller, and Shorty Rogers. Kirsten also participated with Perahia in a pianist Master Class.

Kirsten is not only a concert performer and recording artist, but she has recently penned a tome entitled Dream Piano that documents an eventful series of piano finding adventures in the company of one character, York, a colorful, 81-year old "piana tuna." All that adds up to Kirsten being quite a character on paper which this writer can further validate through recent conversations with the pianist.

Having established that Kirsten is a cross between Agatha Christi and Muzio Clementi transplanted into the 20th Century, what of her precious Scarlatti? Kirsten is beautifully sola scriptura, carefully respectful of Scarlatti’s scores without perform them in a boring or rote manner. Kirsten has no fear taking on the Vladimir Horowitz Scarlatti book, devoting special attention to Sonatas in "G Major, K. 146"; "D Major, K. 96"; "f minor, K. 466"; "D Major, K. 491"; and "E Major, K. 380." Of sensual delight here is Kirsten’s feather touch on the f minor sonata and her inclusion of the E Major Sonata, with which Horowitz opened his 1986 Moscow concert captured on Horowitz in Moscow.

Kirsten acknowledges her peer, Murray Perahia’s Scarlatti output with the inclusion of the "sonata in b minor, K. 27", accentuating Perahia’s purist approach with a more fluid articulation and expression in a way flattering to both pianists. Kirsten perfectly captures the lullaby character of the "B Flat Major Sonata, K. 440". Overall, this is superb Scarlatti, played with grace and care.

Kirsten’s Scarlatti recital is provocative but is made further compelling by the inclusion of a Schubert impromptu and three Chopin Waltzes. It would be simple, at first listen, to dismiss the inclusion of these Romantics with roundly Baroque Scarlatti… simple-minded, that is.

Listening to this disc in one sitting brings into focus the history of pianism from mid-18th Century to mid-19th Century. Using the metaphor of confection, one could consider the Baroque musings of Scarlatti as simple, yet elegant bonbons coated with powdered sugar. Dip these bonbons in the early Romanticism of milk chocolate and one can imagine the transformation of Scarlatti’s notes into the sweetened and slightly dangerous vision of Schubert. Substituting the decadence and delicious bite of dark chocolate for Schubert’s milk chocolate and one arrives at the high romanticism of Chopin, his waltzes musical gospels teaching so much in so short a time.

Shirley Kirsten’s choice and performance of these pieces is both educational and highly enjoyable. This is not music one fills up on; it is music of which one cannot get enough. It is a pleasure to know that A Musical Journey: Scarlatti, Schubert, & Chopin is to be followed by another Scarlatti/Chopin collection.

A Musical Journey: Scarlatti, Schubert, & Chopin is available through CDBaby. Visit Shirley Kirsten on the Web.


Sonata in A Major, K. 113, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in G Major, K. 146, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in d minor, K. 1, D. Scarlatti; 4 Sonata in G Major, K 14, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in D Major K. 96, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in b minor, K.27, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in G Major, K. 391, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in C Major, K. 159, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in f minor, K.466, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in D major, K. 491, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in d minor, K. 77, D. Scarlatti; Pastorale in D Major, K. 415, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in E Major, K. 380, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in D Major, K. 492, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in d minor, K. 141, D. Scarlatti; Sonata in B Flat Major, K. 440, D. Scarlatti; Impromptu in E Flat Major, Op. 90, Schubert; Waltz in A Flat Major, Op. 69, Chopin; Waltz in b minor, Op. 69, Chopin; Waltz in D Flat Major, Op. 64, Chopin.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...