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: