New Piano Disc of Music by Carter Pann - Steve Kennedy, Cinemusical

Carter Pann (b. 1972) has received a  number of commissions both in the states and in Europe.  He was a student of William Albright and currently teaches at the University of Boulder—Colorado.  Naxos has released some of his larger orchestral work.  This disc features pianist Joel Hastings for whom the primary work on the album was written.

The Piano’s 12 Sides is a massive collection essentially of somewhat disparate musical pieces.  The notes for the release indicate that each one bears a dedication to different people.  On the one hand, the pieces have a sort of Neo-Impressionist harmonic approach often with occasional dissonance that feels more tied in to a Romantic sensibility.  The bear a close resemblance perhaps to Debussy’s Preludes crossed perhaps with the Suite Bergamasque and the Etudes.  The first selection, “Silhouette”, serves to set up this sound world quite well providing examples of both languid and rapid passage work.  It is among the longest pieces of the twelve.  A burst of energy then follows in “Figurines” which is a sort of modern perpetuum mobile; later “Le Branle” will do the same in a borrowing of a 12th-Century dance as its formal basis.  The music sometimes can feel very evocative, with an almost Asian quality—like a painted screen or scroll, in places like the often serene “White Moon Over Water.”  “Classic Rock” has moments that borrow tropes from that genre.  The “Soiree Macabre” stands out as an intriguing bizarre salon piece.  Another rather beautifully lyrical moment occurs in the touching “She Steals Me.”  Another nod to 19th-Century showpieces occurs in the penultimate “Grand Etude-Fantasy” which is a modern update of sorts of the fantasia from Bach to Liszt.  The work is summed up with an adaptation of the “Irish Tune” (often referred to as Londonderry Air).  While there are connections one might make between the different pieces, most likely the work will be a source for pianists to study modern piano composition as it has that fell to it.  Many of the pieces are quite stunning and superbly performed here by Hastings who must pull out a number of stops to both meet the technical demands and communicate this new musical voice.  Fortunately these are couched in a very accessible musical language that make the set quite attractive.

At 60 minutes, the CD’s title work would certainly be enough to satisfy any listener, but Hastings has added three additional selections as encores of a sort from earlier in Pann’s output in the mid-1990s.  The first of these bears witness to the composer’s musical aesthetic and connections to two modern masters whose music his own is a continuation of: William Albright and William Bolcolm.  The jazz and popular music acquisitions in their work is used for two modern ragtime pieces in The Bills (1997)—a homage also to Joplin’s Bethena (in the first movement) and traditional rags (in the second).  Another two-step piece, The Cheese Grater (1996), serves as a brief virtuosic exercise to further demonstrate Hastings skills.  For a final contrast, there is the cadenza from Pann’s first piano concerto, titled here Your Touch.

Joel Hastings has a lot of ground to cover in these pieces.  He must traverse a variety of free form works whose harmonic movement often feels blurred between two centuries.  Beautiful lyric lines are given parallel passage work sections for great contrast.  What really comes across though is the opportunity to switch gears from one movement to the next.  His ability, and willingness, to explore popular musical forms, coupled with his own experience in virtuoso works by the likes of Liszt (which garnered him critical acclaim at the 10th Van Cliburn competition) make him a fine interpreter to present these pieces.  The music itself will now enter into the repertoire as Pann’s own reputation builds over time.  It would not be surprising to see some of the movements from this massive collection appearing in the future.  We have this first recording as a testament though to the overall conception.  After hearing Hasting’s work here, it would be interesting to hear some Gottschalk and even a little Joplin from him in perhaps another American recital of more diverse repertoire.  Highly recommended.


David Denton, David's Review Corner

September 1, 2014

Completed two years ago, The Piano’s 12 Sides, from the composer/pianist, Carter Pann, is in twelve highly contrasting movements that lasts for over the hour. For the Canadian-born pianist it is an unqualified triumph. Clarity, even in the most complex passages, and that feeling that nothing would be too difficult for him, is captured in a recording of outstanding quality.


Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

September 4, 2014

I've gotten a nice boost upwards into the compositional world of Carter Pann (b. 1972) with his latest CD The Piano's 12 Sides (Naxos 8.559751). Joel Hastings gives us very enveloping, vibrant renditions of the 2011/12 title opus plus a number of shorter works, all but one enjoying their world premiere recording here.

Pann has an ultra-musical pianistic outlook and the works, especially the hour-long title suite, have a kind of plain air post-impressionism about them, modern yet with a lyrical eloquence that suggests Debussy and Ravel but in extension, as Carter Pann music, with some excitingly contemporary elements, all sounding especially well as piano music.

"The Piano's 12 Sides" gives us a series of 12 vignettes, each filled with light and color. "Soiree Macabre" gives us an old-time, jazz-stride-related refrain surrounded by ruminations and eruptions. "An Irish Tune", the final number in the suite, is in fact Carter's lovely take on "Danny Boy". All of it gives your ears and your musical psyche a lift with beautifully modern harmonies, cascades and adventures into imaginative piano realms.

"The Bills" (1997) and "The Cheese Grater" (1996) have modern ragtime-early jazz feels influenced by his studies with WIlliam Albright but given a Carter Pann spin. They are very fetching and filled with elan.

The final "Your Touch" (1997) is in fact the cadenza from his "Piano Concerto No. 1" and leaves us in a thoughtful mood.

Maestro Pann has a wonderfully lyrical and sometimes almost puckish outlook that bears our attention very well and strikes one as thoroughly contemporary, even though he has one eye on the past and what he sees he transforms and reshapes to his own vision. Joel Hastings plays these works as if he were born to them. He has just the right combination of touch and cool, yet impassioned power to make the performances truly characteristic.

I must say I find this one much to my liking. Any lover of the thoughtfully poetic qualities of the pianoforte as developed by the more dazzled and dappled composers and performers over the last century will find this something familiar yet fresh, a delight.


Pann: The Piano's 12 Sides - Dan Morgan, Musicweb International

September 9, 2014

One of the joys of visiting a record store – now an endangered species – has always been the chance of discovering something new and unexpected. Even in the digital age serendipity isn’t dead, for it was on a late-night trawl through eclassical’s online catalogue that I found Carter Pann’s The Piano’s 12 Sides. I must confess this Illinois-born composer was unknown to me, but within seconds of scanning the track-list the album was safely on my hard drive and ready to go.

Before diving in, I decided to sample an earlier Pann release; this includes his piano concerto – the first movement of which is cheekily titled Pina Colada – andTwo Portraits of Barcelona (Naxos American Classics 8.559043). If anything that disc made me even more impatient to hear The Piano’s 12 Sides; soloist Barry Snyder and conductor José Serebrier deliver a scintillating performance of this Prokofiev-meets-Gershwin concerto. It’s accessible without being anodyne, and there’s plenty of humour too. The Brno orchestra certainly sound as if they’re having fun, and the recording is bright, but not overly so. Dipping into The Bullfight – one of the Barcelona sketches – confirms Pann as a winning talent; gaudy, preening and Arnoldian in its exuberance this is laugh-out-loud music that had me reaching for the repeat button at the last ‘Olé!’.
That’s just a tantalising titbit of what’s on that well-filled CD, and it certainly whet my appetite for the album under review. According to Pann’s liner-notes – accessed via the Naxos website, as none were supplied with the download - The Piano’s 12 Sides was written for, and in collaboration with, pianist Joel Hastings. The individual titles – among them FigurinesWhite Moon Over WaterLe Branle andCradle Song – are described in detail in the booklet. In essence they embrace a range of styles; for instance Silhouette has a delightful, almost Satie-esque circularity, along with bravura writing that wouldn’t disgrace much older and more celebrated composers, past and present.
Hastings is a thoughtful and intuitive pianist who brings out all the music’s colour and nuance. Dynamics are beautifully judged and the warm, embraceable recording is most appealing. The Dionysian Figurines – superbly articulated – is followed by the Apollonian Legend, whose delicacy and pensive charm are a fitting foil to what’s gone before. Predictably, perhaps, White Moon Over Water is Debussian in its shift and shimmer, but that’s not to say Pann is unthinkingly derivative; no, what we hear is imaginative writing of strength and character, very well structured and executed. Ditto the contrasting Le Branle – based on a 12th-century French chain dance – and the Lisztian helter-skelter and bright carillons of the Grand Etude-Fantasy.
The two pieces that comprise The Bills were written when Pann was still a student at the University of Michigan. Inevitably ragtime conjures up the shade of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries; that’s very true of the first piece, dedicated to Pann’s composition teacher William Albright. It has a breezy charm that belies its intricacy and craft; in short, it’s a very assured opus for one so young. The jazz-drenched, improvisatory character of the second, for William Bolcom, is perhaps more Beiderbecke than Turpin or Joplin. As before, Pann’s understanding of a given style or genre is complete, so that what might be pale pastiche in lesser hands becomes something vibrant and very personal. 
Remarkably this album just gets better. The Cheese Grater – subtitled ‘A Mean Two-Step’ - confirms that Hastings is no mean pianist, either. What a whirligig of a piece, and what a rousing encore it would make in the concert hall. After all that excitement, fix a drink - a Pina Colada, perhaps - dim the lights and just wallow in Your Touch, taken from the concerto I referred to earlier.
I managed an A/B comparison between the 16- and 24-bit versions of The Piano’s 12 Sides, and while the former’s clean and bright it seems to lack the 'air' and sheer tonal sophistication of the latter. Whether that justifies the difference in price - $20.70 as opposed to $13.80 – is entirely up to you. Me? I’d splash out on the high-res download, which rivals Hyperion’s best. The only downside is the missing documentation; that takes the shine off an otherwise exemplary release.
Feisty, sense-sating music from a terrific talent; superbly played and recorded.


Carter Pann: The piano's 12 sides - Ettore Garzia, Percorsi Musicali

August 3, 2014

William Albright e William Bolcom sono responsabili della gran parte della formazione dei compositori americani quarantenni: nello specifico hanno trasferito il loro modo di comporre, ossia quello della combinazione tra la tonalità malleabile che appartenne soprattutto al movimento francese del novecento (da Debussy a Messiaen) con gli idiomi della musica popolare americana (blues, country, jazz e soprattutto ragtime): questo polistilismo ha invaso le carriere di Derek Bermel, Gabriela Lena Frank, Frank Ticheli e tanti altri, nonchè quella di Carter Pann (1972).

La Naxos pubblica un secondo cd monografico in cui risaltano queste caratteristiche: Pann, che ha ricevuto una nomination al Grammy nel 2000 per il suo primo piano concerto, è compositore sensitivo, teso alla ricerca di un impressionismo musicale costruito senza compromessi e retorica, con continui cambi di stile: sono gli stessi esecutori che se ne rendono conto. José Serebrier, che condusse il suo piano concerto n. 1, affermava "...what could be derivative musical ideas at first hearing, or even imitative, on further acquaintance appear well-planned, distilled through the composer's special voice...". 

The piano's 12 sides ha molto del vero delle parole di Serebrier; è scritta con una predilizione dell'impostazione occidentale, con molte tracce in cui non si è di fronte a semplici repechage di Debussy. Ne vengono fuori delle composizioni al piano che hanno un sapore classico del tutto interdisciplinare, e potrebbero essere consumo di varie schiere di ascoltatori, dal jazz alla new age music. Dedicato a 12 pianisti, il lavoro di Pann supera quello fatto nel suo primo piano concerto, nettamente incentrato sul polistilismo prima descritto: di quest'ultimo il compositore americano ripubblica qui solo una piccola parte centrale, la cadenza della terza parte, Your Touch. Immersioni nel ragtime sono invece le vignette di The Bills, che rendono esplicito omaggio ai maestri formatori, e la piena americanità descritta da The cheese grater.

Le composizioni di Pann hanno un indispensabile gancio nella perfetta esecuzione: la fiducia e la stima nel pianista Joel Hastings, canadese pluripremiato per le sue interpretazioni di Chopin e Liszt, non è stata riposta male, perchè Hastings grazie alla sua verve espressiva, risulta il vincitore dell'opera di fianco a Pann.


Anthony Kooiker, The Holland Sentinal

For an artist of any age, the program and performance were stunning. At the age of 23 he doesn't show promise; he shows instead that he has “arrived” as a formidable artist and musician. The program opened with the eighth prelude and fugue by Bach from The Well-Tempered Clavier. The three sections of the prelude expressed a sense of the profound quality found in this “church-like” piece. The fugue followed in an appropriately brisk and happy tempo. . . . The second piece, the fourth Scherzo by Chopin, a piece I have always found elusive, was played with great elan with the appropriate breathtaking passagework. In spite of the tonal “bumps” in the chapel piano, the performance was outstanding for its tonal control and virtuosity. The familiar Mazurka in A minor, also by Chopin, was sensitively played. It was followed by three of the bravura etudes, Opus 8, by the Russian composer Scriabin. Hastings had more than adequate technique to match the dreadful technical demands of these pieces. His performance of these etudes was more colorful and impassioned than the recent performance of them given on the same piano in the same place by a faculty member of the University of Michigan. . . . The standing ovation Hastings received for his performance was well deserved.

Laurence E. MacDonald, The Flint Journal

Hastings was born in Canada, but his musical soul seems to have come from the Russian steppes. Sensitive playing of five Rachmaninoff pieces and a set of 10 short works by Sergei Prokofiev made up a large part of Hastings’ recital . . . The Steinway piano, brought in especially for him, rang with warm resonance at his every touch. Truly lyrical playing was heard in the “Lullaby” . . . and “Lilacs.” Extremely sensitive playing was again heard in the Sonata No. 9 by Alexander Scriabin. . . . [T]he Variations serieuses by Felix Mendelssohn received an insightful interpretation . . . the ensuing 17 variations revealed great harmonic originality and rhythmic ingenuity, as highlighted in Hastings’ sensitive playing. Capping the afternoon was a sensational performance of Franz Liszt’s Totentanz. Hastings’ playing was the most impressive single pianistic even of this local concert season. Torrents of sound poured out of the piano, with Hastings tossing off one hair-raising difficulty after another. His glissando runs were effortless in their execution . . . [T]his was a tour de force that all in attendance will long remember.

Marilyn Wiwcharuk, Kamloops News

Guest pianist Joel Hastings performed the much-loved Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The melodic moments were expressed poetically with stunning singing tone and the energy of his performance was felt throughout the hall. We were left feeling this was a labour of love and, combined with a mastery of the keyboard which was more than adequate to the task, explains the wide audience appeal which this very fine pianist commands.

Danny Gaisin, Oakville Today

The evening finale was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano concerto in C-minor. . . . Hastings immediately demonstrated marvelous craftsmanship with great strength and dexterity. In the seductive adagio . . . the soloist took pauses of a deliciously dramatic duration, reflecting the composer’s direction of sostenuto or prolonged. Very effective! . . . Hastings’ intricate right-hand solo was a delight to both hear and observe . . . [T]he final coda was rousing enough to earn both the guest and the orchestra a well-deserved standing ovation. 

Andrew Wagner-Chazalon, Huntsville Festival of the Arts

It appears that someone forgot to tell Joel Hastings that he was the warm-up act. . . . Hastings delivered an impressive performance, particularly in the slow middle movement [of Chopin's Concerto in E Minor], the Romanze: Larghetto, in which he delivered exquisite phrasing and wrung the full emotional potential from every note. He also showed a deft touch in the final movement, the Rondo: Vivace, with a finale which brought the audience to its feet.

Ted Shaw, The Windsor Star

He began with a magnificent reading of Franz Liszt’s Totentanz to close the first half of the program, then rounded out the concert with George Gershwin’s popular Rhapsody in Blue. The double dose of Hastings was a bonus in a program full of musical good cheer and celebration. . . . Hastings’ nimble performance of the Liszt work had Saturday’s full house on its feet cheering. . . . The soloist delivered a dignified performance, but full of the Lisztian dash.

John Ardoin, The Dallas Morning News

The kinetic fingers of this young Canadian reminded me strongly of his late countryman, Glenn Gould. . . . He gave a dazzling, sweeping performance of Liszt’s Totentanz and a vivid, alive one of Mendelssohn’s Serious Variations. But most amazing of all was his performance of a new Sonata by Australia’s Carl Vine, a piece of superhuman difficulty that is an impressive addition to the repertory and which Mr. Hastings tossed out with supreme confidence and glittering wizardry.

Standing Ovation Fitting - Murray Charters, Brantford Expositor

November 26, 2012

Canadian pianist Joel Hastings gave the very model of a perfect piano recital Sunday afternoon at the Sanderson Centre as part of the Brantford Music Club series. The first half was rather dark and heavy yet presented with such confident ease that the modest audience felt quite satisfied. It was a nice study in contrasts, too, between the very inner, personal world of Rachmaninoff and the very outer and church-like music of Cesar Franck. Indeed, right from the beginning of the Russian music the melody tended to be played by the thumbs in the middle register while shadows and emotions whirled above and below it. With Franck, the tune is usually on the top, searching for meaning while riding a crest of chords below. Hastings approaches all of this heavy material, Rachmaninoff's early Fantasy Pieces and Franck's Prelude, Aria and Finale, with a comfortable casualness, which removes much of the weighty intellectual angst and lets the glorious sound of the piano sing through. Hastings remarked that he had been here before, and was happy to be back to revel in the sound of this hall and that piano.

The second half was much lighter, beginning with three modern rags by contemporary American composer Carter Pann. These character pieces, musical portraits of people and events, were so readily acceptable to the audience that a portrait of that elder statesman of piano composition, William Bolcom, received spontaneous applause before the set was quite done. Hastings then melted into a lengthy rendition of George Gershwin's Love Walked In, arranged by that great Australian pianist and composer, Percy Grainger. Gershwin's soulful melody still shone through Grainger's shimmering piano stylings, and the combination of virtuoso piano technique in the service of great tunes made this the 20th-century equivalent of Franz Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert's songs. And, indeed, there was Liszt next on the program, but with one of his more carnival pieces, the 14th Hungarian Rhapsody. This showpiece with its simplistic bombast was almost comical in comparison with the eloquent pieces of the first half. But Hastings wisely cleansed our palate of this heavy red wine with an excellent choice of light sorbets: Mendelssohn's Rondo Capriccioso as an encore. The limpid clarity of the introduction in the major key and elfin dancing of the rondo in the minor key were just what this audience truly appreciated. Their standing ovation only after the encore seemed a fitting judgment on Hasting's entire concert; an ovation for the skill of his playing, for his quiet and settled demeanor, and most of all for the perfect balance wrapped up in this happy afternoon of piano music of such varied styles, hues and textures.


Review of Songs and Dances - Dennis E. Ferrara, From the Listening Room

November 25, 2008

It is always a treat to see a new piano recital by Joel Hastings. This new release is no exception. Once again Mr. Hastings has selected a unique program of original compositions as well as some excellent piano transcriptions. More and more pianists are programming transcriptions; moreover, they were extremely popular well-over 100 years ago.

Mr. Hastings has made an excellent decision to open his CD recital with Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Within its five movements, one is immediately cognizant of the playing of an extremely sensitive, subtle artist. All the beautiful phrasing, nuance and subtlety required for this music is here in abundance. Based on old dance forms, the artist uses the piano as a painter would with beautiful color pastels. Each dance adds to the one preceding it.

Respighi composed Three Suites of Ancient Airs and Dances; later, he transcribed select dances for this suite for piano. Based on 16th and 17th century dance forms, this six movement suite shows the warm and color available through this wonderfully "singing" tone Steinway model D concert nine-foot grand instrument. The artist plays these beautiful dances with much love and spends time in creating "beautiful music for these beautiful and charming melodies." Each dance adds another dimension to a lush and personal interpretation.

Schubert composed well over 500 "lieder" songs and Liszt transcribed several volumes for the piano. In Liebesbotschaft, one finds a beautiful melody embellished in a romantic tradition. Hastings' "singing" tone is most evident here. He treats the melody line with a vocal type interpretation complete with breathing type pauses as one would find a vocalist doing in a lieder recital.

The Rachmaninoff Polka de V.R. was originally thought to be a theme by Rachmaninoff's father, Vasily; however, music historians and scholars have recently discovered that the quaint tune was actually written by Franz Behr, a minor salon composer, and based on his tune, Laughing Dove Polka. The pianist plays it with much charm.

The two Bach transcriptions: Jesu, Joy of Men's Desiring and the Sinfonia express two sides of this expressive pianist. The plaintive Hess transcription is world known and is played with warm and beauty of tone. On the other hand, the Saint-Saens' transcription is full of virtuosity. This piece demonstrates the pianist's excellent piano technique and his sense of rhyme.

Liszt promoted and helped sponsor Wagner and transcribed several of his operatic titles for the piano. Overture to Tannhauser is a brilliant "tour de force" in orchestral playing. Hastings never allows his brilliant virtuosic technique to show itself for bravado; rather, the music itself is foremost in the mind of this artist and virtuosity plays a secondly role. He builds upon orchestral conducting in developing crescendos and decrescendos on the piano throughout this massive transcription. Thrilling and exciting best exemplify this interpretation.

Gershwin's ballade The Man I Love as arranged by Grainger again reveals Hastings' wonderful lush and singing tone in this one of Gershwin's most haunting love ballads.

This CD is highly recommended for any music lover, musician or aficionado who loves beautiful playing, warm piano tone as well as a grand artist who totally understands sensitivity for the musical phrase.

The piano technicians Hugh Gulledge and Norm Vesprini are to be congratulated in developing and maintaining a beautifully regulated instrument for this recording session. Todd Sager, engineer and musician, has an extremely sensitive ear and the end result is that this CD has a Steinway piano captured with a rich bass and a singing treble. There is nothing harsh or unmusical here; moreover, Steinway Gallery of Michigan utilizes several touring instruments and the Steinway utilized in this recording is one of the finest instruments available; furthermore, the program notes by Charise Hastings are well-written and add much to the success of this new piano recital. Overall, this is a perfect example of everything working together to form a totally pleasurable and artistic whole.

Review of Liszt Transcending - Alan Becker, American Record Guide

May 4, 2007

Canadian-born Hastings is yet another young pianist involved in producing his own records. This one, recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is very well engineered and includes notes on all of the pieces instead of the endless auditory paragraphs on the artist. Additional information can be found on his website If the "proof of the pudding" is to be found in the tasting, the pianist has given us much to savor and an appetite to hear more. . . .

Opening with the Concert Paraphrase of Rigoletto, Hastings immediately asserts himself as a natural in this repertory. His phrasing and his handling of the showy cadenzas fall spontaneously from his fingers without any obvious effort to beat us over the head with empty virtuosity. Another paraphrase, on Lucia Di Lammermoor is just as well done; the famous Sextet takes center stage. Wagner's 'Liebestod' from Tristan is a good deal more subtle than many other readings . . . . Four of Liszt's settings of the most popular Schubert songs, Schumann's well-known 'Soaring' and Mendelssohn's 'On Wings of Song' might seem potboiler territory; but they are extremely well done and fall on the ear gratefully when presented with such joy. Less known is a concert arrangement from Handel's opera Almira, consisting of the Sarabande and Chaconne. This is the longest selection by far, but holds the listener without resorting to forced display. Gluck's famous flute 'Melodie' from Orfeo et Euridice is the odd man out, being transcribed by Scambati, though the Italian did study with Liszt.

DETROIT DISC: Hastings shows maturity - Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press

April 8, 2007

It's been a decade since Joel Hastings, a Canadian-born pianist who trained at the University of Michigan, returned to southeastern Michigan from competing in the 1997 Van Cliburn Competition and began building a career. He won the eighth International Web Concert Hall Competition last year and now plays about 20 recital dates a year. Two new CDs -- one devoted to Liszt transcriptions, the other to Chopin's Op. 10 and Op. 25 Etudes -- document how mature a player he has become.

Hastings has always had tornado-like technique and a virile tone, but in listening to the recordings, I was struck by the expressive nuance he pulls from music that others treat as vehicles for grandstanding. The Liszt CD is particularly valuable because these splendid fantasias wrought from operas by Verdi, Donizetti and Wagner and songs by Schumann, Schubert and others are more imaginative and profound than many realize.

In the "Liebestod" from "Tristan und Islode," Liszt captures the full sweep of Wagner's passion, and Hastings, in turn, fervidly translates the vision without overheating. In the songs, Hastings spins long, graceful melodic lines. Among recordings of the Chopin etudes, there's stiff competition, but Hastings is persuasive, and although I wished for more poetry, his pianistic control and flexibility generate plenty of pulse-racing excitement.

Review of Sessions and Liszt Transcending - Michael Cookson, Musicweb International

March 7, 2007

It is a misnomer to think that the top record labels have the monopoly on the most talented performers. Only a few days ago I attended two recitals given by the Lithuanian-born and Paris-based pianist Mûza Rubackyté and was hugely impressed [by] her talents. Another name that springs to mind is Grigory Sokolov who is the most magnificent pianist yet manages to escape the marketing hysteria generated by the giant record labels. Now on these two review discs I am captivated by the superb playing of Canadian pianist Joel Hastings; who is a name new to me. His command of dynamics and characterful performances make him worthy of considerable attention.
Born in Ontario in 1969 Joel Hastings was the winner of the International Bach Competition at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., placed second in the Chicago Chopin Competition and won first prize at the Royal Canadian College of Organists National Competition. In 2006 he was the winner of the 8th International Web Concert Hall Competition, at Rockville, MD.
The first disc is Joel Hastings’s impressive debut CD, titled Sessions recorded in 2001. The sound quality is clear and well balanced. I found the documentation interesting, reasonably informative; although not without error.
In the Rachmaninov scores I experienced the impressive Oriental Sketch briskly played and the rocking and colourful Lilacs at times evocative of an impressionist tone painting. With the Lullaby Hastings resists the temptation to over-sentimentalise; using a calm and gentle approach. The Étude-Tableau No. 1 in C minor is played with drama and vivacity, with episodes of strong passion. The appealing Prelude No. 12 in G-sharp minor contains sturdy dramatic contrasts.
Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces for Piano, Op.12 make delightful listening with Hastings very much at home here. In particular, I enjoyed his lively and powerful interpretation of the March; the restlessly scurrying Rigaudon; the mystery of the rhythmic Capriccio and the frenetic and energetic playing of the Scherzo Humoristique.
Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses in D minor, Op. 54 is an agreeable score that seems to fall into six contrasting sections. I loved the gently restful section at 4:38-5:57; the sacred reverential quality at 7:05-8:48 and the vigorously dynamic playing in the final section that gently and rapidly dies away at 8:49-11:24. In Scriabin’s notorious Sonata No.9, Op. 68, known as the ‘Black Mass’, the soloist conveys a convincingly sinister atmosphere of dark foreboding, generating considerable tension with a quite magnificent concluding section.

The final score on the disc is Liszt’s Totentanz, that he arranged in 1860-65 from his mighty Totentanz (Dance of death) Paraphrase on the Dies irae for piano and orchestra, a work he originally composed in 1849 and subsequently revised. Evidently Liszt had been inspired by the magnificent frescoes titled ‘The Triumph of Death’ on the wall of the basilica in the Campo Santo at Pisa. I especially enjoyed the way the Canadian provides a convincingly uneasy and searching quality to the martial section at 1:24-3:54; his dreamy playing of the carefree episode at 5:01-6:34 and the dramatically robust conclusion at 13:20-15:09.
The second disc from Joel Hastings, titled Liszt Transcending, is a superbly performed all-Liszt collection of twelve transcriptions, paraphrases and arrangements of works by eight composers. Recorded live, the well balanced disc contains some minor noise on four of the tracks but nothing too obtrusive and audience applause is included at the end of track 11. I found the liner notes interesting to read, providing much essential information.
The opening score is the Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto where Joel Hastings gradually and expertly builds up intensity and weight. At 4:38 I found the power and drama that he generates especially impressive. The Canadian soloist in the arrangement of Schumann’s Widmung provides considerable refinement and the five Schubert scores Das Wandern, Der Müller und der Bach, Die Forelle, Ständchen and Erlkönig are joyously interpreted with delicacy and good humour.

The appealing arrangements of Auf Flügeln des Gesanges by Mendelssohn is given a performance of tenderness with an impressive lightness of touch and the arrangement of Reminiscences of Lucia di Lammermoor effectively contrasts strength and vitality with tenderness. I love the way he accelerates the tempo superbly and seamlessly from 5:16-6:07. Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s mighty Isolde's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde is powerfully performed with an abundance of high drama.
The arrangement of the Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s Almira is robust and lyrical played in a highly Romantic style and in the final score on the disc, Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of the Melodie from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, the soloist provides an unhurried reading of compelling tranquillity.
This is high calibre playing from Joel Hastings a pianist who is worthy of considerable attention. These two releases deserve a place in any collection of instrumental music.


All-Liszt Recital - James Leonard, Ann Arbor Observer

May 1, 2006

Joel Hastings' all-Liszt recital was absolutely stunning from the first note to the last. Hastings is a superhuman virtuoso with a massive sound and monumental technique. Hastings has extraordinary charisma that commands complete attention. But best of all, Hastings is a real musician, and his musicality makes an audience pay attention not to him but to the music he's playing....But, under Hastings's hands, it all worked. His performance of Liszt's more-or-less straight transcription of Wagner's Liebestod was especially transcendent. Through his control of balances and dynamics, through his command of tone color and pedaling, and especially through his imaginative, emotional, and even spiritual feel for the soul of the music, Hastings's performance achieved a kind of beatific rapture. If he can make glorious music with a fraudulent poetaster like Liszt, imagine how he will fare with the true poet of the piano.


Review of Sessions - Jeannette Luton-Faber, Ann Arbor Current Magazine

July 1, 2004

I don’t often wax rhapsodic over new releases, but this offering by superb native Canadian and local classical pianist Joel Hastings is one worth burbling over. Generally our musicians put together well-done, enjoyable recordings. Hastings, however, presents the work of a true artist in this new album, Sessions.

Upon my first listening of the Rachmaninoff compositions, which comprise the first five tracks, I was set back on my heels by the impeccable virtuosity and musical inspiration underlying Hastings’s interpretation. His astonishing evenness of tone brings out the shimmer of Lilacs and the contrasting virility of the Etude-Tableau, Op. 39, No. 1.

The disc has 10 tracks of Prokofiev works (you can never have too much Prokofiev), which illustrates not just his mastery over the most difficult piano technique, but also his stature as an artist. His control and depth of expression go from the introspective beauty of Legend to the aggressive, primitive stomping of the Allemande. This latter piece brought to mind an illustration in one of my childhood books of the hut of Baba-Yar dancing about on huge chicken legs.

Hastings magnificently polishes off Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses in D Minor, Op. 54; Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, Op. 68; and Liszt’s fiendishly difficult Totentanz.

Were I listening to this without knowing the artist, I would have guessed it to be the work of a top-tier pianist such as Evgeny Kissen or Sviatoslav Richter. Hastings definitely falls into the category of world-class performer.