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 Figurines, White Moon Over Water, Le 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.