Before we continue, would you do me a favor? Listen to tracks 4, 5 and 6 of the playlist below. They contain a piano concerto called “The Circle and the Child,” composed by Philip Lasser, and performed by pianist Simone Dinnerstein, with Kristjan Järvi conducting the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, off of Simone’s new album “Broadway-Lafayette.”
OK? Did did you listen? Good. Now please, someone, anyone, tell me: What am I missing? Have I totally lost my ability to hear music? Am I out of my mind? Or is that piece really as bad as it sounds?
I mean, I have boundless admiration for Simone Dinnerstein, whom I have both broadcast innumerable times and presented in recital. Composer Lasser, whose music was previously unknown for me, does not lack for credentials — he’s on the faculty at Juilliard, for Pete’s sake. And the album came out on Sony Classical, among the majorest of major labels. Big artist, big composer, big label — and probably, big fee.
And what do I hear? As shapeless and meandering a work as I’ve encountered in many a listen. The imagination runs wild with analogies: A soufflé that fails to rise, a mold that can’t hold its form, a car that spins its wheels in the mud (a friend and I came up with that one independently of each other). It starts, stops, speeds up, slows down, gets louder, gets softer, and after twenty minutes, basically hasn’t budged. I’ve given the piece hearing after hearing after hopeful, even desperate hearing, and I still can’t make any sense of it. Can you?
I wouldn’t at all have minded the piece’s nostalgic, cinematic idiom, if the composer had really gone for it. An updated equivalent to such ultra-romantic movie classics as Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto” or Hubert Bath’s “Cornish Rhapsody” could have been delicious!
Instead, we get a cup of weak, lukewarm tea, bafflingly devoid of pizazz or bravura. I don’t question Simone Dinnerstein’s devotion to this new work, which she commissioned and has played many times in concert. But interpretively and virtuosically, she is severely underutilized here. What a shame. Even for an artist of her stature, major new commissions like this don’t happen every day.
And again, this is the big leagues. If it were a minor composer and a minor performer, I wouldn’t say a peep. I swear, if someone had told me that this was the first classical work of some newbie wannabee from another musical field, such as the works I reviewed here and here, I would have believed it. But from a Juillard prof? Wow. What gives?
Maybe the performers are partly at fault. For even the two acknowledged masterworks on the program, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” fail to come off very well. The orchestra in particular sounds rather scruffy and scrappy, with more passages of poor ensemble and questionable intonation than should have been let go. Neither do the Leipzigers’ recognizably Teutonic tone colors and leaden rhythms help in this Franco-American repertoire. I can’t let Simone totally off the hook here either, as her playing in the Ravel and Gershwin lacks the poetry and tonal beauty that have made her one of my favorites. And to spread the sweet green icing on this rain-sodden cake, the confined, unpleasantly forward recorded sound complements the album’s most salient qualities all too well.
(Added later on March 12, 2015: So let’s not overlook producer Adam Abeshouse, a respected and awarded figure in his field who is ultimately responsible for what went wrong here.)
I take no pleasure in any of the above, and don’t mean to offend. I’d much, much rather deliver good news than bad. And I approached this album with the highest hopes.
But some things aren’t just bad, they’re wrong. Often, when I sample wines at a winery or an in-store tasting, I’m poured something that I don’t care for and would never buy, but which isn’t objectively terrible. So I sip, swish, swallow, pour out and shut up. Sometimes, however, I’m poured something from a big-time producer that should never have been foisted upon the public as ostensibly a beverage of pleasure. And I say so. Well, as with wine, so with music.