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.