Conrad Tao: Voyages (CD review)

Music of Monk, Rachmaninov, Tao, and Ravel.  Conrad Tao, piano. EMI Classics 50999 9 34476 2.

EMI Records has a long tradition of helping and promoting talented newcomers, and the present disc is no exception. Although Voyages is not the first album from enormously talented American pianist, violinist, and composer Conrad Tao (b. 1994), it is his first full-length solo effort.

I wish I could say the album was entirely successful, but it did not strike me that way. Of the five works on the disc, one of them, the Monk piece, is extremely short; two of them Tao wrote himself, and they did not interest me much; and the other two are by old hands, Rachmaninov and Ravel, which come off best. However, because the latter works are so famous, one may find any number of equally good competing discs with even more attractive material on them. Still, Voyages should please Tao’s fans, and it certainly shows off his pianistic versatility.

The program begins with Railroad (Travel Song) by Meredith Monk, a rhythmically dynamic piece that suggests the sounds and feel of a fast-moving train. It’s a fascinating little work that lasts about two minutes (you can hear it below). The only drawback I found in Tao’s rendering of it is that I never got the impression of the size and power of a locomotive and railroad carriages. Tao’s version of it is more like a night ride in a sleeping car--at once animated and restful but not exactly vibrant.

Next come some of the most-pleasing things on the album: five Preludes by Sergei Rachmaninov, which Tao chose from the composer’s Op. 23 and Op. 32 sets. They range from soft and ethereal (No. 5, Op. 32) to big and swirling (No. 7, Op. 23), both of which Tao handles in a very Debussy-like way, full of color, strong passions, and gentle persuasions. In the Rachmaninov, Tao demonstrates his poetic sensibility above all, while still projecting a skillful sense of authority (No. 2, Op. 23). If he had devoted the entire album just to the Preludes, I think I would have been happier.

Tao also does well conveying the surreal imagery of Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (“Treasurer of the Night,” or in some interpretations, “The Devil”). The pianist appears ideally suited to illustrate the sensitivity of the French idiom, and I enjoyed the open airiness of Tao’s playing.

Then there are the two works Tao composed himself: Vestiges and Iridescence for piano and iPad. Both pieces, the former in four movements, create small tone pictures of dreamy, changeable landscapes; both are easily accessible; and both are worth hearing. Once. I’m just not sure how often I’d want to return to them, as they seem rather lightweight, spacey, and pop sounding. But what do I know. At least they’re easy on the ears.

Producers Marina and Victor Ledin and engineer Leslie Ann Jones recorded the album in 2012 at Skywalker Sound, the world-famous venue in Marin County, California, not too far from me and one I have visited on several occasions. It’s not surprising the recording team found a suitable location for showing off Tao’s abilities. The sound is warm and comfortable, miked at a moderate distance for a piano recording, yet with suitable detail. Perhaps some listeners will prefer more bite to the notes, but the sound seems to fit the music nicely, especially Tao’s delicate approach to things. Then, too, the engineers capture a pleasant hall ambience that helps communicate the music in a most relaxing manner.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa