Steven Kennedy: Manuscripts Don’t Burn Review

Feel The Burn in Faliks’ Personal Pianistic Release

By Steven Kennedy

Recording:   ****/****  Performance: ****/****

Pianist Inna Faliks’ new release is a companion to her new memoir, Weight in the Fingertips (Backbeat Books, 2023).  Here, the Odessa-born pianist has taken her love for her homeland, Ukraine, in the midst of war and explores concepts of censorship and dictatorship in a variety of new pieces presented here in Manuscripts Don’t Burn.  The title itself comes from a 1967 Mikhal Bulgakov novel, The Master and the Margarita.  This retelling of Goethe’s Faust also becomes a unifying feature for some of the other works on the album. The release features these new pieces that blend dialogue and music inviting reflection of the music’s intent and suggestiveness.

The opening Master and Margarita Suite (2022) by Veronika Krausas, is provides brief introductory excerpts from Bulgakov’s novel and explores different characters and moments from the work.  Each brief movement takes a more free exploration of earlier musical forms (sarabande, polonaise—with a quote from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, waltz, bagatelle).  The tonal focus of the music lends a semi-extended romantic quality to the music with interesting splashes of virtuosic gestures across the rather intriguing work.  The title work, Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2022) by Maya Miro Johnson focuses on the Satan’s Ball scene of Bulgakov’s novel focusing on Margarita’s vision of the world.  It utilizes some more avantgarde styles of clusters and strumming in the piano strings among more angular lines as it explores the full range of the instrument.

Three Schubert songs, two inspired by Goethe and one by Heine, are also part of the first half of this recital.  They are all Liszt’s transcriptions and provide a nice palette cleanser stylistically to the contemporary works on the program.  Both Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkonig serve as interludes to the works that follow.  The former to Johnson’s piece with its reference to the young Gretchen/Margarita dreaming of Faust at her spinning wheel.  The latter serves as a sort of postlude to the first half of the release.  Am Meer becomes the transition into the second part of the program with its seascape inspirations.  Psalm to Odessa (2023) by Mike Garson incorporates an Odessan fisherman’s song as it reflects also on the destruction in Ukraine and pulls us into the new directions of the narrative here.

Voices (2011, 2019-20) is an interesting suite in three movements that incorporates historical recordings into the performance.  The piece, by Ljova Zhurbin, uses a 1908 recording of Jewish cantor as the work begins.  At the center is a setting of an Ukrainian folk dance incorporating a 1912 field recording.  The final movement features a 1953 recording from Yiddish actress/singer Fraydele Oysher.  It thus provides interesting snapshots of the rich musical heritage of the region. 

Music by Clarice Assad brings the album to a conclusion.  First is Godai, The Five Elements (2013) which also features poetry by Steven Schroeder.  The music here shifts to Japanese Buddhism and the five elements of the world: wind, fire, water, earth, and sky.  Assad utilizes a lot of interesting effects to imply the ethnic musical inspirations here while also providing a variety of musical challenges for the performer that further highlight Faliks’ skills.  The album closes with Heroes (2013) which was originally conceived as part of the earlier suite but has been featured in other settings.  Here it serves as an upbeat, hopeful conclusion to the storytelling across the release.

The overall conception of the release works superbly with musical settings that invite reflection along the musical and textual journey that Faliks takes.  Her own virtuosic abilities also shine here and are perhaps more apparent in the excellent performances of the three Liszt-transcriptions.  The same dedication and musical interpretations there all can be discerned in the newer pieces written for her that complete the release.  As we move from the storytelling first half into the more personal aspects of history and its connection to modern events, we get a new sense of the dramatic abilities of Faliks.  There are moments that are quite touching here as musical quotations are overcome by intense, contemporary writing styles.  The musical choices tend to point out this interesting struggle between the troubled regional history and its many folk and cultural connections.

The sound captures the piano’s rich quality and provides a solid presence to the instrument.  For those accessing the album through streaming services, there are two additional pieces (one by Fanny Mendelssohn, and one by Fazil Say) to enjoy as well which add another twelve minutes of music to this engaging new release.

  1. La Campanella, Paganini - Liszt Inna Faliks 4:53
  2. Rzewski "The People United Shall Never Be Defeated" (excerpt, improvised cadenza) Inna Faliks 8:36
  3. Beethoven Eroica Variations Inna Faliks 9:59
  4. Gershwin: Prelude 3 in E-flat Minor Inna Faliks 1:25
  5. Mozart Piano Concerto #20 - II Inna Faliks with Chamber Orchestra of St. Matthews 10:27
  6. Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) : Scarbo - Ravel Inna Faliks 9:07
  7. Sirota by Lev 'Ljova' Zhurbin Inna Faliks 7:45