English keyboardist, composer and founding member of progressive rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Keith Emerson (1944-2016) www.keithemerson.com sadly passed away during the night of 10th/11th March 2016 at his home in Santa Monica, California.
Emerson performed several notable rock arrangements of classical compositions, ranging from J. S. Bach and Modest Mussorgsky to such 20th-century composers as Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Leoš Janáček and Alberto Ginastera.
It is fortuitous that Naxos www.naxos.com have just released a recording of his Piano Concerto No.1 coupled with works for piano and orchestra by George Gershwin, Neil Sedaka and Duke Ellington entitled Manhatten Intermezzo and featuring pianist Jeffrey Biegel www.jeffreybiegel.com with the Brown University Orchestra www.brown.edu/Departments/Music/sites/orchestra conducted by Paul Phillips www.paulsphillips.com/Paul_Phillips_website/HOME.html
It is George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (orchestrated by Ferde. Grofe) that opens this disc, bringing a wonderfully sultry feel, clarinetist Benjamin Wesner finding exactly the right feel. The Brown University Orchestra under Paul Phillips likewise has that rather bluesy nature that is so necessary in this music. Jeffrey Biegel proves to be a fine soloist, holding a careful line between a classical formality and jazz flavoured freedom. These players really give their all in a highly spirited and spontaneous performance, at times great fun.
This is one of the most enjoyable performances of this work that I have heard in a long time.
Neil Sedaka (b. 1939) http://neilsedaka.com is better known as a singer, pianist, song writer and record producer. As a child he showed exceptional musical talent and looked destined to become a classical pianist before finding his gift for song writing. Here we can hear his talent in a larger form with his Manhattan Intermezzo for piano and orchestra (orchestrated by Lee Holdridge). It opens with a gentle melody for piano expanded when the orchestra joins. Pianist Jeffrey Biegel and the orchestra finding some very lovely moments as the music rises and falls, developing this attractive theme through some fine variations, at turns dramatic, rhythmic, with a passage of sultry Iberian flavour, syncopated rhythms pointed up by percussion and even a waltz. Sedaka finds moments where there is a quieter emotional tug. He never allows the music to flag, always finding something new to say. Biegel brings some wonderfully fluid passages before a vibrant passage that leads to a dynamic coda full of rising and falling piano scales.
Composer, pianist and jazz bandleader Duke Ellington (1899-1974) www.dukeellington.com was a particularly prolific composer. Here we have his New World a-Comin' for piano and orchestra (arranged and edited by Maurice Peress). It opens with a finely played orchestral melody before the brass raise the temperature. The piano enters to bring back a gentle feel with a slow, thoughtful exposition of the theme before finding a livelier tempo where Ellington’s jazzier ideas come to the fore. There are some wonderfully nonchalant passages for piano and various individual instruments as the music moves along with Jeffrey Biegel providing a lovely touch. The orchestral brass are particularly fine as they add their contribution. There are some wonderfully light and jolly passages, full of good humour and, as in the Gershwin, this soloist and orchestra really know how to swing, bringing a lovely spontaneity. Later there are finely contrasting quieter passages before a dynamic orchestral passage. Fine broad piano phrases lead to some virtuoso work for the pianist in the coda.
Finally we come to Keith Emerson’s Piano Concerto No.1 (1976) (co-orchestrated by John Mayer). The Allegro giojoso (joyful) opens with a percussion stroke before the orchestra lead forward in an impressively discordant forward moving theme. There is a gentler woodwind section full of fine harmonies before the violins take the theme forward. The piano leads through some fast moving passages, full of forward momentum with some scintillating playing from this fine pianist with first rate orchestral support. Rhythmic changes abound before a slower central section, a kind of brass chorale to which the piano joins. The cadenza has a jazz flavour before the orchestra re-joins to lead to the coda with a fine descending motif from the piano.
Andante molto cantabile finds a kind of pastoral flow as the orchestra quickly leads ahead, often with a rather American flavour. When the piano joins, it brings a slow flowing line, quite thoughtful before picking up rhythmically before the coda. This is an especially lovely little movement.
Toccata con fuoco opens on a fierce toccata for piano immediately joined by the orchestra who bring wild swirls around the piano. The music travels through some quite original moments, rhythmically varied with a multitude of instrumental details before a more leisurely section for piano, joined by the orchestra who hold a lovely restraint. Eventually the piano and orchestra hurtle off as the toccata returns leading grandly to the vibrant coda. In many ways this is the most impressive work on this disc.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable release with pianist Jeffrey Biegel and the Brown University Orchestra conducted by Paul Phillips delivering first rate performances.
Although the recordings are all made in the Sayles Hall at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA the recording of the Gershwin does have a rather full acoustic though this has been completely tamed in the other works on this disc providing excellent results.
There are informative booklet notes from Paul Phillips. My copy of this release has incorrect track listings on the rear insert of the CD. The works are played in the order given in this review. I have been assured (see below) by Paul Phillips that all CDs now on sale will have had this corrected.