Dominic John’s “24+1” a Great Trip

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24+1 / GENZMER: 10 Preludes: II. Allegro. VIERNE: 12 Preludes: I. Prologue. FAURÉ: 9 Preludes, Op. 103: No. 1 in D-flat. CUMMING: 24 Preludes: No. 4 in C-sharp min. SVETLANOV: 12 Preludes: No. 5 in D. BLUMENFELD: 24 Preludes, Op. 17: No. 24 in D min. KAPUSTIN: 24 Preludes, Op. 53: No. 19 in E-flat. AUERBACH: 24 Preludes – 1998: No. 14 in E-flat min. MESSIAEN: 8 Preludes: No. 1 in E, “The Dove.” GLIÈRE: 25 Preludes, Op. 30: No. 10 in E min. IRELAND: 4 Preludes: No. 3 in F, “The Holy Boy.” GÁL: 24 Preludes, Op. 83: No. 16 in F min. STANFORD: Prelude No. 37 in G-flat, Op. 179. ABRAYMAN: 24 Preludes: No. 9 in F-sharp min. GOLTZ: 24 Preludes: No. 3 in G. DUBOIS: 10 Preludes: No. 4 in G min. ALKAN: 25 Preludes: No. 15 in A-flat. BOWEN: 24 Preludes, Op. 102: No. 18 in G-sharp. BUSONI: 24 Preludes: No. 7 in A. SZYMANOWSKI: 9 Preludes, Op. 1: No. 6 in A min. BERKELEY: 6 Preludes, Op. 23: No. 5 in B-flat. BORTKIEWICZ: 10 Preludes, Op. 33: No. 10 in B-flat min., “Patetico.” KABALEVSKY: 24 Preludes, Op. 38: No. 11 in B. CUI: 25 Preludes, Op. 64: No. 4 in B min. PREVIN: The Invisible Jazz Drummer: Prelude No. 5 in C / Dominic John, pianist / Willowhayne Records WHR041

Here’s something new under the sun. British pianist Dominic John, who won first prize at the 22nd Brant International Piano Competition, gives us a wild ride through 25 piano Preludes traversing the chromatic scale from D-flat (enharmonic C-sharp) to C. Some of them, like the pieces by Harald Genzmer, Lera Auerbach and Nikolai Kapustin, are quite jazzy, whereas others are strictly classical. More interestingly, John has really chosen some composers off the beaten path and some entirely off most peoples’ radar. I know, for instance, who Yevgeny Svetlanov was—one of Russia’s greatest conductors—but had no idea he also wrote piano music. Louis Vierne I always think of as strictly an organ composer, but here his Prologue No. 1 is played on the piano. The names who were entirely new to me were Harald Genzmer, Richard Cumming, Felix Blumenfeld, Lera Auerbach, Eduard Abramyan, Boris Goltz, Pierre Max Dubois and Sergei Bortkiewicz. The others I all knew, but not necessarily these specific Preludes.

One of the reasons the set works is that John is a particularly exciting and dynamic pianist. Yes, he can also play quietly and tenderly, as he does in the Fauré Prelude, but by and large he is clear and forceful, making the music leap out of your speakers. He’s also able to bring out such allusions as the hint of Lulu’s Back in Town to the Kapustin Prelude No. 19 in E-flat without over-emphasizing the relationship. Interestingly, Auerbach’s Prelude No. 14 has a jazzy-calypso kind of beat, and it goes by so quickly (48 seconds!) that you might almost miss it.

By and large, John has selected pieces that are tonal and melodic but not sugary or banal; this is even true of the one Messiaen piece, subtitled “The Dove.” He has the gift of being able to transport us from prelude to prelude and from style to style without running the risk of making the whole project sound forced or artificially created. I was utterly delighted by his wonderful phrasing and contorl of dynamics in the Prelude in E minor by Reinhold Glière, a composer who normally leaves me cold, and perhaps due to his British heritage he has just the right feel for the music of Ireland, Stanford and York Bowen. The Ireland piece in particular, subtitled “The Holy Boy,” is performed with such gentle reverence that I was taken aback by it, particularly after the dynamism of the Glière piece. By contrast, the staccato virtuosity required by Hans Gál’s Prelude in F minor is wonderfully articulated and Charles Stanford’s Prelude sounds like a lively country dance.

Abramyan’s Prelude in F-sharp minor is almost a sonata movement, so richly written and dense is it. Boris Goltz’s Prelude is a fast, light, dancing kitten (this was one of my favorites). Dubois’ Prelude is slow, quiet, almost pointillistic and rather sad. The particular Alkan Prleude chosen is one of his simpler pieces, except for the contrary motion of the left hand vs. the right when they play two different rhythms simultaneously. Keep your left brain-right brain coordination sharp! I already knew this York Bowen Prelude and love it; how richly scored those chords are, and how musically and dramatically effective it all is. I was utterly delighted by Busoni’s Bach-like Prelude in A, which John plays with an almost tarantella-like swagger, followed immediately by Szymanowski’s unique, mystical sound-world.

This leads us into a surprisingly charming Prelude in B-flat by Lennox Berkeley, which also leans rhythmically towards jazz. Bortkiewicz’ “Patetico” Prleude is rich in its Russian romanticism; one can almost imagine the composre breast-beating himself as he wrote it. Kabalevsky is his usual lightweight but charming self, sprinkling notes around the keyboard and using upward and downward finger runs. Cui’s Prelude is the oldest and most conventional in form but still solidly written and vacillating between the minor and major. We wrap things up with André Previn’s Prelude No. 5 from The Invisible Jazz Drummer, another jazzy piece and surely one of the most difficult things I think Previn ever wrote. The left hand sets up an ostinato rhythm while the right plays syncopated jazz figures against it, then it switches to a Latin beat, but again with contrary rhythmic cells thrown in for fun. What a finale!

One final word. The notes by Andrew Morris include the following:

Today, I carry a box in my pocket which, mobile signal permitting, can summon a century of recorded sound and a millennium of musical thought with only a few clicks. What would have seemed to my younger self a science fiction dream opens the byways of music history to our rambling minds. The shelves stretch now into the dim distance, but where to start? Automated algorithms suggest the next fix of the unknown – if you liked that, you might like this – but now, more than ever, we need guides to join the scattered, limitless dots.

All of which is nice but most of which doesn’t impress me. Yes, you can “summon a century of recorded sound and a millennium of musical thought,” but beyond the “scattered, limitless dots” that must be sorted through, how do you know that you’re hearing the best performances of that music? Or even really good performances? There’s a lot of junk out there. And absolutely none of it sounds good on your android, iPhone, tablet or blackberry “devices,” so why are you bothering? (And let’s not ignore that phrase, “mobile signal permitting.” How often do you get the No Service message when you want to hear something?) Go back to my very first post, Why I Will Never Stop Using CDs, and get some concrete ideas on how to navigate through the maze. Or try my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music to find out where many of the hidden gems are. I can help, and I’m happy to do so!

In the meantime, however, a delightful, clever album, and one which will certainly expand your musical horizons.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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