This CD is a bit like the musical equivalent of an animal sanctuary for endangered species. The novelty concertante piano repertoire has all but ceased to exist in the wilds of the concert hall. Where once endless programmes were spiced with just such sub-quarter-hour keyboard display vehicles almost none have survived the rigour of modern-day themed programmes and concert series - Rhapsody in Blue
is pretty much the only example that readily springs to mind.
Which is why this interesting and diverse programme of seven such works is to be warmly welcomed. They range from the reasonably well known Chopin Krakowiak
to the rare but interesting Cadman Dark Dancers of the Mardi Gras
. Pianist Joel Fan is an enthusiastic and competent guide although perhaps not always displaying the ideal filigree touch. He is accompanied by the Northwest Sinfonietta. Essentially this is a chamber orchestra - with a 188.8.131.52.2 string strength. This leads to some balance issues when the works require full symphonic brass, a problem exacerbated by Reference Recordings' preference for opulent recordings with brass and percussion strongly featured. In Herrera's charming Vals Capricho
and elsewhere there is a bass drum used that is simply far to 'big' in its sound and impact for either the repertoire or the orchestral group of which it is a part. Likewise, the relatively small string strength, although perfectly well-played struggles to produce a weight of tone that can match the larger instrumentations.
Gabriel Pierné's Fantaisie-Ballet
that opens the programme cannot decide if it is trying to be serious or light. After opening with a rather grand solo piano passage - influenced in concept if not content by Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto perhaps? - the music alternates between the entertaining and the rhetorical. At just over eleven minutes it has the good sense not to outstay its welcome. The impression pianist Joel Fan gives here holds true for the entire album, again enthusiastic and committed playing but lacking that final ounce of finesse and light-fingered agility that marks out the very finest players.
The aforementioned Krakiowak
receives a beautifully poetic performance, in many ways the best overall item on the disc. The Saint-Saëns Wedding Cake Caprice
always was and still is a real charmer, and the strings-alone of the Northwest Sinfonietta are able to relax a little more and be attentive and alert accompanists. My query about Fan's lightness of touch is thrown into relief when you compare this performance to that by David Owen Norris on Chandos with I Musici de Montréal. There is greater 'zing' with Norris and a tighter more articulate style that gives the music more light and bounce. The works that require a heavier style benefit from Fan's approach so the Liszt version of Weber's Polonaise Brillante
is very successful. Likewise the Gottschalk Grand Tarantelle
as orchestrated by Hershey Kay - it's never been a favourite piece but this is the most infectiously good-humoured and buoyant version I have heard - even allowing for the odd bass-drum thunderbolt.
Charles Wakefield Cadman's Dark Dancers of the Mardi Gras
completes the programme and in many ways should be its most intriguing element. Cadman is mentioned in the liner as being "regarded at the time, along with Dmitri Tiomkin, as one of Hollywood's top film composers". A slightly bold statement I would say and one joyfully unencumbered by truth. Cadman is interesting in that he employed elements of native American music and popular music such as Ragtime in his more serious compositions well before more famous compatriots. When you realise that this work was written in 1933 nearly a decade after Rhapsody in Blue
and lacking an ounce of that work's personality and individuality it becomes clear, as is often the case, that doing something first does not always make it the best. All parties concerned give this as rip-roaring a performance as they can but I found my interest wandering well before the end.
Bernard Johnson offers an extended - English only - essay about all the works and their composers, the artist biographies are a little gushing in the way that publicist's materials often are. I've enjoyed many Reference Recordings in the past and whilst this is good I would judge it not of the exceptional quality of many of their other releases both artistically and technically. An enjoyable listen but not an essential one.
Previous review: Brian Reinhart