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.