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Manhattan Intermezzo
Neil SEDAKA (b.1939)
Manhattan Intermezzo (2008) (orch. Lee Holdridge) [18:10]
Keith EMERSON (b.1944)
Piano Concerto No.1 (1976) (co-orch. John Mayer) [19:51]
Duke ELLINGTON (1899-1974)
New World a-Comin' (1943) (arr. & ed. Maurice Peress) [13:34]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) (orch. Ferde Grofé) [17:44]
Jeffrey Biegel (piano)
Brown University Orchestra/Paul Phillips
rec. Sayles Hall, Brown University, Providence Rhode Island New York USA, 12 October 2014 (Gershwin), 18 October 2014 (Sedaka), 18-19 October 2014 (Emerson), 20 November 2014 (Ellington)
NAXOS 8.573490 [69:19]

Something of a mixed bag here. A word of warning before detailing the music: to paraphrase the immortal Eric Morecambe - they play all the right pieces but not necessarily in the right order. Early copies of this disc - including this review copy - have been shipped with the pieces in a different order to the sequence they appear listed. Apparently this was a mastering error and I assume normal service will be resumed in any subsequent production runs. That being the case I will review the disc in the order it should appear.

The concept behind the disc - concertante piano works by composers with roots in popular rather than classical music - is an interesting one. The problem is that it shows that there are 'problems' for composers when writing in more extended forms that a melodic gift alone cannot solve. Worth noting too that all of the works have required orchestrators to help shape the music into the versions we hear. The disc should open with Neil Sedaka's Manhattan Intermezzo. Sedaka is a Juilliard School alumnus and in his early years seemed bound for a career as a classical pianist. He describes the work as "a journey through the musical diversity of New York". What this translates to is a sequence of brief musical vignettes in a variety of styles across the work's eighteen minutes. Some sections are more appealing than others - a gentle tango around the 10 minute mark is an absolute charmer - but it is hard not to hear this as a fairly inconsequential piece in the style of many similar concertante works from between the Wars - essentially it is too long for the musical material it develops. Listened to as a kind of musical sampler from Stephen Foster to Latin American to lyrical ballad it is pleasant but it is the least musically substantial item regardless of length.

The second work is the most overtly serious and longest on the disc. I remember Keith Emerson's Piano Concerto from its original incarnation as a whole side of the Works Volume 1 album where it was played by Emerson and the LPO. I must admit not to having listened to it since. The concerto is cast in a traditional three movement fast-slow-fast format. Emerson is quoted in the liner saying that the work was written at his home in the Sussex countryside as an antidote to the pressures of rock touring. The opening movement starts with a spiky 12-tone theme which dissolves into a more lyrical but still angular melody. The piano writing is muscular and dynamic - this suits soloist Jeffrey Biegel to a tee - and Emerson finds an effective balance between the idiom of writing in a melodic/contemporary style and one influenced by rock-style figurations. I am less convinced by the central Andante molto cantabile which tries too hard to be classical and along the way becomes a bit too dainty. Better once the piano comes in with a curious piece of orchestration with the soloist accompanied by a contrabassoon. The result sounds a little like late 18th century Copland but at less than 3 minutes it is no more than an intermezzo. The liner tells us that the work is partly autobiographical with the finale representing the composer's anger and despair when his house was burnt down. That might well be the case but to the innocent ear the music sounds remarkably like Ginastera. Not that this is such a leap of intuition. Emerson Lake & Palmer's 1973 album Brain Salad Surgery included an adaptation of the 4th movement of Ginastera's 1st Piano Concerto under the title Toccata. The style of Emerson's concerto finale is so Ginastera-esque and given the personal connection between the two composers not to mention it is curious - it is even given the title Toccata con fuoco. Again Biegel is in his element although the orchestra struggles to keep up. As with the opening movement Emerson sustains the interest in the music and the form across the work although some of the solo writing becomes a bit generic in terms of virtuoso keyboard rhetoric. Interestingly, given that ELP were at the forefront of using technology that now sounds dated, this music which was conceived for an 'old-fashioned' orchestra and piano wears its years more lightly.

Substantially more interesting musically is Duke Ellington's New World a-comin'. Rightly, Ellington's position as an important 20th century composer regardless of genre has become established. He stayed true to his jazz roots but wrote a body of work that now seems more ahead of its time in breaking down barriers between popular and nominally high art while staying true to the values of both. In addition he wrote music based on the experience of black Americans as evidenced by the titles of many of these extended concert works. Several of these appear on the disc from Maurice Peress and the American Composers Orchestra alongside New World including Three Black Kings Suite and Black Brown and Beige. The final work on that disc - Harlem - receives a sensational performance as a filler on an old Chandos disc (improbably perhaps) from Neeme Järvi in Detroit (CHAN9226). If you want to hear just how remarkable symphonic jazz music in an orchestral idiom can be that is the performance to hear. Returning to the work in question here - to quote a YouTube link: "This work's title and content were inspired by Roi Ottley's best-selling book on the Negro in America. Ottley looked forward optimistically to better conditions for his people after World War II, and his final statement was that 'in spite of selfish interests, a new world is a-coming with the sweep and fury of the Resurrection.'" Originally written for jazz band and soloist it was reconstructed/orchestrated by Peress in 1983 with Ellington's piano part transcribed from a recording of the 1943 premiere. This 1983 reconstruction is pre-dated by a 1970 recording with Ellington on the keyboard and Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra which can be heard on YouTube so there is a bit of a mystery about what set of orchestral parts were used then.

The disc closes with Rhapsody in Blue. I feel this is poor programme planning. Much is made of the fact that we are given the original jazz-band version and that Biegel plays the complete solo piano part published in the 1996 critical edition. The former is not as rare on disc as the liner would have you think - and is scuppered by the use of a full string section, a poorly balanced rhythm section and an outsized bass-drum. The latter really just consists of some extended passagework that Biegel plays very well but is not a deal-maker or breaker either way. For sure this work is a wonderful and epoch-defining piece but do we really need another version? I find it hard to believe anyone will buy this disc on the strength of it containing Rhapsody in Blue - and if that is the reason they shouldn't because better versions exist elsewhere. Surely another work that fitted the same 'cross-over' style as the rest of the programme would have been a more interesting - indeed tempting - prospect.

Having spent considerable time discussing the music I should now consider these performances. The greatest single strength of that aspect of this disc is the pianism of Jeffrey Biegel. He has a dynamic, often forceful approach that is technically unphased by any of the solo passages he plays. I am not wholly comfortable with his chosen style which in the Ellington and Gershwin in particular takes urgency to the level of impatience - there are passages where it feels as if he is urging the performances forward. There are interesting comparisons to be made in the varied pianistic approaches in the Ellington. Kunzel re-recorded the work in the 1980s with the Rochester Pops and William Tritt as soloist. Tritt is a much more laid-back less flamboyant player then Biegel which matches this second Kunzel version well - more lounge than smoky bar but it gives the music a sophisticated swing helped by excellent orchestral playing and a good recording. Ellington with Kunzel is - by that time in his life - less technically adept than the other pianists but he makes the solo part much more of a jazz work. Sir Roland Hanna for Peress in many ways steers the subtlest path of all; more of a jazzer than Biegel but giving little to him in pure technical address. He is backed by the American Composers Orchestra who swing with the best. Unfortunately this is the poorest recording technically and quite a lot of the great inner voicings in the orchestration are lost or at best obscured.

Which brings me on to the orchestral playing and technical production of this new disc. The killer phrase is "for a student orchestra ..." The Brown University Orchestra play perfectly well but are simply no match for any of the professional ensembles already mentioned. The high strings struggle for absolute unanimity of ensemble and intonation, the brass are bold and well brassy - overly so too often - and across the whole disc there are momentary issues of attack and simple togetherness that begin to annoy on repeated listening. Listen to the very opening minute of the Emerson to hear how the strings are under considerable pressure to hang together as a unit. Added to that this is not one of the finest Naxos recordings. Biegel - who I see is credited as a co-producer - is placed very up-front with the rest of the orchestra in a rather cavernous acoustic behind. The strings gain a certain glaring glamour from that but the rhythm section is curiously balanced and the percussion, including an explosive bass drum is just unattractive. Add to that the brass who need little encouragement to blare and its not a comfortable experience.

For sure, this is a unique programme so if as a whole it appeals it is not awful by any means but not for the first time performances are trumped elsewhere on other discs. Overall something of a disappointment.

Nick Barnard



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