Sometimes I wonder how classical music fans manage to keep all the performers straight. I mean, I see monthly release sheets from every distributor of classical discs in the country, and I listen to five or six new recordings a week. Yet even I can't keep track of who is recording what or who the stars are. For example, when I received the present album from Reference Recording, I saw the name "Joel Fan" in big letters at the top. I had no idea if he was the composer or the soloist for the disc. I had to read the booklet to figure out that he is a talented young American pianist who has worked with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project as well as debuting a few years ago on another Reference Recordings album.
Anyway, on the current disc, Mr. Fan joins Maestro Christophe Chagnard and the Northwest Sinfonietta in a series of seven short dance numbers for piano and orchestra by composers Pierne, Herrera, Chopin, Saint-Saens, Weber, Gottschalk, and Cadman. Fan plays with considerable precision, the Northwest Sinfonietta lend him excellent support, and Reference Recordings produces its usual outstanding sound.
According to Mr. Fan's Web site, he "is a graduate of Harvard College, received a Masters degree from Peabody Conservatory as a student of Leon Fleisher, and is now a Steinway artist. He is one of the most dynamic and accomplished musicians performing before the public today. He is consistently acclaimed for his recitals, recordings, and appearances with orchestras throughout the world. His concerts attract a wide range of audiences, as he has eagerly embraced traditional piano literature as well as an eclectic range of repertoire, including new music commissioned especially for him, world music, and his own transcriptions. Mr. Fan's engaging personality, technical assurance, lyricism, and sheer musicality win over audiences wherever he performs. As a recording artist, Mr. Fan scored two consecutive Billboard Top 10 Debuts with his solo CDs, World Keys and West of the Sun." Well, so much for my not recognizing his name.
First up on the program is the Fantaisie-Ballet by French composer, conductor, and organist Gabriel Pierne (1863-1937). This work came early in Pierne's career, when he was only twenty-one, and Fan and company well demonstrate its youthful vigor and Romantic flair. The soloist captures its light, elegant moments nicely and then fills it out with a grand and exciting virtuosity.
Next is Vals Capricho by Mexican concert pianist and composer Ricardo Castro Herrera (1864-1907). The "Caprice Waltz" is another virtuosic piece, and Fan again demonstrates his dexterity in playing with seemingly ten fingers on each hand. Yet it is also a surprisingly delicate piece of music, with a wonderfully lilting rhythm that Fan and the Sinfonietta express as perfectly as one could imagine.
After that is Krakowiak in F Major by Polish composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). This "Grand Concerto Rondo" Chopin based on the style of a familiar dance in the Krakow area, and Fan and company handle it with a charming grace and refinement, with just a touch of twinkle.
The fifth selection is Polonaise Brillante, a solo piano piece by German composer, conductor, pianist, and critic Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) and later orchestrated by Franz Liszt. Typical of Liszt, the piece is full of bravura showmanship and heroic landscapes, which Fan executes with an unerring command.
The penultimate number is the Grand Tarantelle by American composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), reconstructed by Hershy Kay. Critics often credit Gottschalk as a precursor of ragtime, itself a precursor of jazz. This work, however, is energetically rhythmic in the manner of an Italian tarantella. It's dance tune swirls and whirls, with Fan hardly stopping to catch his breath. It's quite a lot of fun.
Finally, we get Dark Dancers of the Mardi Gras, a "Fantasy for Orchestra with Piano," by American composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946). His music is probably the most unique on the album, partly Romantic, partly modern, partly Joplin, partly Gershwin, and mostly descriptive, it is melodious, ambitious, and vivid. Fan, Chagnard, and the Northwest players appear to be having a great time with it, and the piece ends the program on a splendidly grand, celebratory note.
Producers Marina A. Ledin, Victor Ledin, and Marcia Gordon Martin and engineer Keith O. Johnson made the recording at Lagerquist Concert Hall, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington in August 2013. As always with an album engineered by "Professor" Johnson, we get above all a realistic presentation. We don't always get the most transparent recording in terms of ultimate or absolute clarity, but we do get a lifelike ambiance, a truthful sense of orchestral depth and dimensionality, a pleasant hall resonance, a quick transient response, a broad frequency range (lows through the floor, highs shimmering endlessly), wide dynamics, strong impact, and plenty of air and space around the instruments. The piano itself appears well placed in regard to the orchestra, neither too far out front nor too hidden away but part and parcel of the overall sonic picture. The recording sounds most natural all the way around.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: