Detail from the cover art of ARCANA reflects the Pacific Northwest of composer Alex Shapiro. (photo credit: Alex Shapiro)

CD Review: Adam Marks plays seductively powerful piano music of Alex Shapiro

Giorgio Koukl | 13 MAY 2021

Editor’s Note: Within hours of publishing the following review we learned of the tragic death of pianist Adam Marks, who passed away suddenly on April 9th, 2021, age 42. He was greatly beloved and admired by his colleagues. We are shocked and saddened by the news. Our sincerest condolences to his family and friends. 

This album was my first encounter with the American Pacific Northwest composer Alex Shapiro and I have to admit that this was the best way to get to know her work.

piano music of Alex Shapiro
Adam Marks, piano
Format: Audio CD
Release: August 2020
Label: Innova

First of all, the idea of presenting piano compositions from the last twenty years in a single recording is a winning one. Second, the selection of pianist Adam Marks is the possibly best choice for a composer actually not so well known, at least here in Europe. After listening to a generous 80 minutes of the content some evidence emerges: this music has its own power, a seductive quality of clearly American origin, recalling some Copland, Bernstein and even Ives, but elaborated in a personal way which has no equal.

Alex Shapiro, composer

Alex Shapiro, composer

Ms. Shapiro possesses a great capacity of melodic variety, a very personal way of elaborating the themes and a distinctive manner to express her inner sentiments, feelings and ideas so that this material can be transmitted, enjoyed and communicated with ease. The musical material is treated with respect and great comprehension by the pianist. He is also blessed by a great team of piano tuner, technician and a concert piano of great quality. All these elements are not so common nowadays, but when present, they should be noted and appreciated.

The musical material of Ms. Shapiro consists primarily of single ostinato cells, slow rhythmical shifts, some very fine harmonic elaborations and a refined sense of phrase construction. There are no virtuoso passages. All is based on intimacy, feelings and transposition of smallest events into the magical world of musical writing, a detail of which which Ms. Shapiro has full command.

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Today, while many are trying the way to express themselves by writing music, an encounter with such a talented person is a gift per se. But when all this is played and expressed by a really good pianist, which Mr. Marks certainly is, that is a bonus not so easily available elsewhere.

Mr. Marks has the capacity of comprehension and penetration of the soul of a score far beyond usual. His careful dynamic plan, his extreme detail in touch and phrasing and finally his way of staying and remaining in service of the score, rather than using the score to express his ego, are really unique.

Adam Marks, pianist

Adam Marks, pianist

A few more elements must be underlined while following the piano playing of Mr. Marks.

Rarely have I heard such a beautiful legato, with the right hand literally caressing the keyboard. Rarely have I heard such a wise use of pedal, never too much, never not enough.

A dynamic finesse, uncommon even within the range of so-called great names, seems to be among the natural qualities of this pianist. There are never dull moments in his playing, he captures the attention of his audience, constantly pondering his interpretation in a way so as to never overuse a certain detail, but always offer a fresh insight into a score.

At this point it has to be said that the scores of Ms. Shapiro certainly are not the easy stuff to comprehend and render. Being widely lyrical and even somehow repetitive in character this music needs a precise plan to keep its freshness and inner beauty. Mr. Marks never, even for a moment, delivers less than a maximum of care for these scores.

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All these small details contribute to a CD which really deserves a high applause. It gives to anybody an easy access to the inner world of a gifted composer who would definitely deserve to be more known, played and who I personally would like to follow in more complex works for symphonic ensembles – a task which she certainly would accomplish with great ease and which would surely give to the world more wonderful music.

A few of my researches in order to follow more works of Ms. Shapiro, even if limited by what’s available online, showed her great ability to cope with the larger forms.

I would wish her to have the means, time and passion to fully develop her potential in the world of composition, especially the symphonic one. She certainly has the capacities and in the future definitely will have more public who will follow. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.