Bullets and Lullabies
CD 1
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Toccata, from Le tombeau de Couperin [4:00]
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925) Etude in F, Op 72 No 6 [1:37]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Sonata in E flat, Op 31 No 3, II. Scherzo [5:19]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849) Sonata No 3 in B minor, Op 58, IV. Presto [5:22]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) In the Hall of the Mountain King (arr. Grigory Ginzburg) [2:13]
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888) Grande sonate, Op 33, ‘Les quatre ages,’ I. 20 ans [6:03]
Felix BLUMENFELD (1863-1931) Etude for the left hand, Op 36 [5:01]
CD 2
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Prelude in G flat, Op 23 No 10 [4:16]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) La plus que Lente [5:32]
Grieg Berceuse, Op 38 No 1 [3:10]
Chopin Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, II. Romanza (arr. Balakirev) [10:21]
Ravel Pavane pour une infante défunte [7:53]
Debussy Clair de lune [5:58]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Intermezzo in E flat, Op 117 No 1 [6:43]
James Rhodes (piano)
rec. August 2010, Potton Hall, Suffolk, England
WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS 50524 98358328 [29:33 + 43:49]

Now here’s a recital idea which works even better in practice than it does on paper. James Rhodes’ “Bullets and Lullabies” divides one full 75-minute program into two discs (sold for the price of one), the bullets fast, virtuosic, and energetic, the lullabies soft and reflective. A whole CD of quiet, calm piano music appeals to me — last year I made Edward Rosser’s “Visions of Beyond” a Recording of the Year — but I was afraid that a disc of “bullets” would simply wear out my ears.

Not so, because the secret behind James Rhodes’ edgy public persona is that he is an intelligent, sensitive, old-fashioned (in the good, romantic sense) pianist, with a real genius for putting together a program. Truth be told, the “Bullets” have a lot of the lullaby in them, and the “Lullabies” are not devoid of charge.

A cursory look at the track-list reveals Rhodes’ bullets are not the ordinary pianist’s weapons of choice. Where is Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude? Not here - thank goodness; I’m sick of it. Where is Rachmaninov’s prelude in C sharp minor? - ditto. No, here we have Ravel instead of Prokofiev, Alkan instead of Liszt, Blumenfeld instead of Godowsky. What a difference it makes! Rhodes tackles the Ravel toccata from Le tombeau de Couperin with wit and fleet fingers; the Moszkowski étude is similarly well-treated. The Beethoven and Chopin sonata excerpts - which fit very well in the program - won’t beat all of the dozens of pianists who have distinguished themselves here, but they do feel admirably natural in this recital context. Moreover, Rhodes cheerily plays up the poetry rather than the virtuoso heft. The only “bullety” thing here, really, is Ginzburg’s volcanic transcription of “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” played right on the edge of sanity, the tempo lurching forward from a slow start like a demonic music-box being wound up.

The last two selections sum up the combination of poetry and power: the first movement from Alkan’s sonata “Les quatre ages,” depicting the life of a twenty-something, and Felix Blumenfeld’s étude for left hand, op 36. In his smart, witty liner-notes, Rhodes compares the Alkan to getting out of the bed in the morning, which seems apt: pepped up and slightly askew at first, like a man trying to find and silence his alarm clock, its musical ideas begin to swim together until the rousing final minute suggests our protagonist is ready to stomp out the door and seize the day. It’s refreshing to hear this rare music, and Rhodes’ playing is powerful and crystal-clear. The Blumenfeld is here because it’s spectacularly difficult to play; the CD also comes with a video of Rhodes playing a few bars, “in case you’re wondering if I cheated”. In truth, though, it’s a lullaby, hypnotically gorgeous, with a sort of warm evening glow. This is my favorite performance of the set.

Not surprisingly, then, the “Lullabies” CD strays into bullet territory occasionally. The Rachmaninov prelude, Op 23 No 10 in G flat, opens with a dreamlike evocation of bells but the central climax is hard-hitting indeed. Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte has rather more backbone than usual, and an emphatic final chord — not necessarily my cup of tea. The Grieg Berceuse isn’t quite in the same mystic world as, say, Håkon Austbø, either, though it’s lovely.

On the other hand, the Chopin concerto movement, in a rare arrangement by Balakirev, floats along with feather-lightness, as does Debussy’s glowing La plus que Lente - in which Rhodes wants us to hear jazz, and we do - and Clair de lune, at six minutes exactly the luxurious slow tempo I like. And Rhodes has again saved the best for very last: a luminous Brahms intermezzo, consoling, softly reassuring, like returning home after a long time gone. Hey, this is the end of the “PM” side of the CD. Call that clever programming.

A word about James Rhodes himself. A lot of artists rise to prominence on the basis of a really compelling life story — say, Lang Lang. Rhodes’ is his struggle with mental problems (in one newspaper story, he says he “spent nine months trying my level best to kill myself”) and other distractions (this disc’s liner notes say the “album could have just have easily been called ‘Cocaine and Benzos’”), and the way in which music rescued him from the depths. He’s fond of calling Beethoven his drug.

Yet James Rhodes’ secret is that he’s really very good at this. Without the backstory, he’d be a talented pianist who chooses his music wisely, plays with clarity, indulges romantic repertoire with a broad, loving rubato, and has a phenomenal gift for explaining music in understandable language. The videos on the CD, of Rhodes breaking down the things he loves about each track, are simply marvelous. With the backstory, he’s a star. “Bullets and Lullabies” isn’t an indulgent pop-classic album: no, the music chosen is too good, the bullets are too poetic, the lullabies are too subtle, the program is too off-the-beaten-track, the playing is too mature for that. Even the liner-notes make it clear that Rhodes would rather crack a joke than take himself too seriously. In short, I really hope this album sells like hotcakes for Warner Brothers Records. Maybe this is the beginning of “popular classical” done right: a modest, even self-deprecating public persona, clear and natural communication with the audience, music choices that speak of the curator’s personality rather than his pandering, an edgy, daring image — oh, yes, and fine playing, too.

In January, Rhodes told the Guardian, “I’m a big fan of keeping the music serious but making the rest of it accessible. How much nicer would it be if you, the pianist, provided the programme notes? So you are talking about the composer before you play and then you can hang out afterwards and have a drink with the audience, as opposed to being some guy who sits up on stage and doesn’t communicate at all other than playing the piano.” I like the sentiment — and Rhodes is just the right man to carry it out. Just don’t make the mistake of underestimating his artistry, because he communicates with the piano, too.

Brian Reinhart

“Pop classical” done right: neither self-important nor frivolous, and good playing too.