Arts & Culture

The new CD shows off Joel Fan’s crystalline piano against a solid Northwest Sinfonietta

No one does froth better than Joel Fan.

A sought-after pianist who performs everything from Barber’s 1949 “Piano Sonata” to Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road project, Fan is the kind of brilliant articulator with the keys that makes him ideal for the kind of repertoire he’s just released with the Northwest Sinfonietta — a recording of 19th-century virtuoso party pieces.

“Dances for Piano and Orchestra,” recorded last year at Pacific Lutheran University’s Lagerquist Hall, however, brings something new to the Chopin-champagne cocktail: a string of lesser-known works from Louis Gottschalk, Ricardo Castro and others that adds both New World and Germanic voices to this very French genre. And despite some heavy-handed sound engineering, both Fan and the Sinfonietta sparkle throughout.

The recording starts with Gabriel Pierné, a Frenchman who wrote his late 19th century “Fantaisie-Ballet,” Op. 6 at age 21 before a busy conducting career took him away from composition. The sweeping, uber-romantic chords transitioning from piano to orchestra are followed by light-as-air winds in the second theme. Fan has a very percussive attack, which is effective in the balletic staccato and clear repeated notes, not so much in the lyrical sections. There are a few piano glitches in opening, and some messy ensemble bits later with the brass; here’s also where you first notice the very immediate, engineered sound, which picks up the details but not the cushiony hall sound of Lagerquist.

The sound gets worse in Castro’s “Vals Capricho,” Op. 1. Behind the swooping piano runs the string pizzicati sound dry and the full chords thumpy, with much reverberance cut off. But as Fan contrasts the languid first theme with the more moody, Polish-sounding minor sections, the orchestra sounds big and romantic on the sustained chords. (An international pianist himself, Castro might have written in a European style, but brings a Latin-American energy to his writing — like Chopin on a happy day.)

Chopin himself is the CD’s centerpiece, with the 14-minute concerto-rondo “Krakowiak in F Major,” Op. 14. Fan plays the contemplative introduction with treble notes clear as bells (if not terribly vocal) over a smooth orchestral blanket, before winding up through the first theme to an allegro filled with sparkling arpeggios and descending thirds like waterfalls. More thoughtful here than in some of the other pieces, Fan plays his melodies with urbane wit and depth, sustaining the piece’s over-long structure with a strong narrative.

The recording goes on through different facets of the genre: frothiness in Saint-Saëns’ “Valse-Caprice in A-flat Major (‘Wedding Cake’),” Op. 76, with soft strings flowing under crisp repeated notes and crystalline runs in the piano; jauntiness in von Weber’s “Polonaise Brillante”, Op. 72 (jazzed up by Liszt with plenty of 19th-century modulations and augmented chords). Here Fan plays with aplomb and surprise accents, backed by tight brass for a thoroughly enjoyable finish.

Then there’s Gottschalk’s “Grand Tarantelle,” Op. 67, gracious rather than wild, with string sequences reminiscent of Mendelssohn and Italian-style horn interruptions setting the stage for a golden piano solo. Fan executes his repeated triplets and runs with smooth brilliance, but the sound engineering gets particularly annoying in the clashing orchestra chords with the cymbal cut off abruptly after each one. A New Orleans native, Gottschalk brings in a circus tune at the end for a New World parade feel, and Pittsburgh composer Charles Wakefield Cadman keeps it going with “Dark Dancers of the Mardi Gras,” written long after the Romantic heyday in 1933.

A little like Berlioz meets Bernstein with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” thrown in, this piano fantasy is lushly scored. As the xylophone echoes the stern, descending themes in piano and orchestra, a palm-court string tune belies the darkness behind the revelries. The Sinfonietta sounds great here, with pure flute solos, precise percussion and warm string tone backing a grandiose piano part that could have had more resonance, but still puts the icing on the Mardi Gras cake.

“Dances for Piano and Orchestra” does more than just show off Fan’s brilliance at the keyboard. It spins the virtuoso Romantic piano genre into something much wider and deeper. The CD is available on Amazon.com.

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